Central Pa. Leads Way in Hydrogen Technology

Central Pa. leads way in hydrogen technology
by Michael Casper


Thanks to the local bus system’s use of natural gas and transportation expertise at Penn State, Central Pennsylvania has been chosen as the first U.S. demonstration site for new hydrogen-enhanced natural gas bus engine technology.

The initiative involves buses of the Centre Area Transportation Authority, a hydrogen fueling station at Penn State and research expertise at the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute. It is the only site of its kind on the East Coast. A handful of others are planned for California.

CATA is scheduled to receive at least three of the specialized engines this year at no cost, under an agreement with Doosan Infracore, a Korean firm that manufactures a hydrogen and natural gas engine for commercial buses. The prototypes are estimated to be worth $500,000 each.

Compared to engines CATA now runs, experts say the hydrogen-compressed ones will have more power and be quieter.

“The downside from trying to make conventional technologies meet higher emission standards is there is almost always a side effect,” explained Kirk Collier, CEO of Collier Technologies, which invented the new technology. “The engine generally loses significant power and runs rough.”

Collier said the new hydrogen-compression natural gas buses will also make public transit systems less harmful impact to the environment.

“As emissions regulations (for commercial buses) become stricter and stricter, conventional technologies won’t meet the standards,” he said. “As more transit agencies are required to meet the new standards, the (fleet operation) demonstration shows how this is viable.”

CATA was an eager participant in the program.

“We provided a vehicle that could be modified to burn (hydrogen-compressed natural gas),” said CATA Executive Director Hugh Mose. “This helped provide an ongoing, steady load for the hydrogen reformer, consuming hydrogen on a day-in, day-out basis.”

Collier said the Public Transportation Institute’s ability to supply the expertise, test track and hydrogen and natural gas fueling station made the Centre Region the optimal choice.

The hydrogen fueling station was installed in 2005 with support from the U.S. Department of Energy and private funding. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Community and Economic Development provided funding for 10 hydrogen vehicles, including the first hydrogen-compressed natural gas CATA bus, hydrogen-compressed natural gas vans and a fuel cell vehicle operated by Penn State. 

“The outcome is a great new technology available to U.S. transit fleets, offering great performance with much lower emissions and a low-cost bridge to a hydrogen economy,” said Joel Anstrom, director of the PTI’s Hydrogen and Hybrid Vehicle Research Laboratory.

Collier said the demonstration initiative was met with wariness and lack of incentive from some other prospective sites, which he declined to name.

Doosan engines are a variation on an existing model in wide use in Asia, Collier said. Emissions requirements are very strict in Korea.

“They’ve actually mandated only natural gas buses,” he said. “Doosan had to respond to those things.”

Key design changes were required for the engines to even fit American-made bus models, Collier said. “The cylinder heads are totally new, and the engine tuning is totally different. Exterior modifications to the engine were made to accommodate the different engine bays, location of other elements and the way the engine is cooled.”

Doosan is currently building a plant for U.S. production of the new engine in Sparks, Nev., to open by October 2008, according to Collier. By Federal Transit Administration mandate, the production engines will include at least 60 percent U.S. parts and U.S. assembly. The engines will cost an estimated $30,000 each.

But the three engines destined for CATA will have been assembled in Korea.

Collier said that until stricter emissions standards came along, there is simply no market in the United States for his technology.

“We had to go offshore to find a company that would even talk to us,” he said.

Michael Casper coordinates publications and outreach for The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute.


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