Power breakthrough may speed alternative energy

Ben DiPietro Pacific Business News

A Big Island company will be the exclusive seller of a new bladeless-turbine technology the manufacturer says will drastically reduce costs for electrical power generation and hydrogen fuel production for use in fuel cells and automobiles.

The Hydrogen Renewable Energy Enterprise, or T.H.R.E.E., signed a deal last week with Utah-based International Automated Systems Inc., which accidentally stumbled upon the new, patent-pending technology while doing research on other products, said Randy Johnson, vice president of business development for the Utah company.

The breakthrough could one day be seen as being as important a discovery as the cotton gin, says Jack Dean, president of Hilo-based T.H.R.E.E.

"In much the same way ? people could look back and say, wow, what a revolutionary new idea that allows us to move to a totally different level of self-generation," said Dean, a former executive for Puna Geothermal.

Because the bladeless turbine is ne-tenth the cost of a traditional turbine, it's able to provide better efficiencies in cogeneration applications such as heating water or running chillers for air conditioners and bring the cost of producing hydrogen down to where it is equal to or below the cost of gasoline, Johnson says.

"To use the electrolysis process to generate hydrogen required for a fuel cell is about three times more than gasoline, probably more than that," Johnson said. "We can make hydrogen, we estimate, at least at the price of gasoline and possibly closer to the price of natural gas."

Dean plans to incorporate the turbine into a power plant he says will be small enough and inexpensive enough to be affordable for homeowners and small companies. The turbine allows the power plant to be miniaturized for use in homes and small businesses, and owners can sell any unused electricity back to the utility company.

"The power plant can be a cogeneration facility that maximizes available energy sources to minimize actual energy costs," he said.

By better regulating the balance between thermal energy needs and electrical energy needs, Dean says customers can customize systems to meet their specific situations. That means they can ensure a high thermal load in the middle of the day, when air conditioners more likely are being used and lights are off, and a reversal of that situation in the evening, he says.

"Our power plant can go in and more accurately track the load a business or home is using and allow it to ramp up and down as needs change throughout the day," Dean said. "We're estimating at this point that [customers] can produce their own power or energy at far less than half of what they're paying now."

Instead of using blades, the turbine manufactured by IAS uses supersonic nuzzles to propel it, Johnson says.

"Our turbine doesn't require expensive blades, so the maintenance on it is very simple and inexpensive," Johnson said. "The big issue is we are able to efficiently use low-quality steam and to adjust the temperature of the steam without incurring difficult maintenance or a huge shift in efficiency."

While a conventional turbine must use steam, the bladeless turbine can use liquids, vapors or a combination of the two. That makes it ideal for use with geothermal energy sources that, until now, had to separate vapors from liquids, Dean said.

Dean expects most of the systems he sells in Hawaii to be solar-powered, and is talking with some solar companies about partnerships. Biomass or propane also can be used to fuel the power plant system.

The new technology could speed up the time it takes to bring fuel cell applications to the mainstream public, possibly by 2010 instead of the 15 to 20 years some experts say it will take before fuel cells are widely used.

"It's coming a lot quicker than most people ever imagined," Dean said. "By having the means to make low-cost electricity, it makes economic sense for people to make hydrogen for use in fuel cells at times when the sun isn't shining to run their businesses."

A demonstration system should be set up on the Big Island in a couple of months, at which point Dean may hire employees.

"Just about everybody can use it because it's so adaptable on a cogeneration basis," Dean said. "Anybody that can take advantage of thermal electrical load as well as electrical load should be very interested."

Reach Ben DiPietro at 955-8039 or bdipietro@bizjournals.com.