FEATURE - Los Alamos nuclear lab looks to build clean energy
Author: Zelie Pollon
The weapons lab, founded 60 years ago, has been researching hydrogen fuel cell technology for about 25 years and has said it is ready to answer U.S. President George W. Bush's call to make the technology into a viable energy source.
"Los Alamos has always been about more than making the atomic bomb. If fuel cells become a more useful technology we'll be an overnight success, even though we've been working on it since 1977," said Ken Stroh, program manager for hydrogen and fuel cell technology at the laboratory.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, Bush proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to fund hydrogen fuel cell research over the next five years, with an ultimate goal of eliminating U.S. dependence on foreign oil by 2040.
There are numerous facilities fighting for a piece of the $1.7 billion pie, but Los Alamos thinks it may have an inside track through its experience as a U.S. government lab, its prestige, and by having a governor in Bill Richardson who once served as the U.S. energy secretary and understands the inner workings of Washington.
"We've never had a supportive environment like this," Stroh said.
Lab officials have recently met with the likes of General Motors and Ford to discuss ways to create an economy based on fuel-cell technology.
Los Alamos is looking for any good news it can get. In recent months, the lab has been rocked by ethics scandals that cost its former director his job and questioned the oversight ability of the lab's senior managers.
FUEL CELLS TO GO
Hydrogen fuel cells can be built to any size, which means they can power anything from a cell phone, which takes about one watt of electricity, to an automobile, at about 130 kilowatts, he said.
Hydrogen fuel cells emit almost no pollution and produce electricity from oxygen and hydrogen. But hydrogen is expensive to make, and is derived mostly from hydrocarbons such as natural gas or gasoline in a process that does pollute.
Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, has the highest energy output of any known fuel. But it needs an external energy source to free it from its chemical compound and create more energy. Hydrogen, whose byproduct is water, is now often accessed through natural gas, but can also use wind and solar power, as well as nuclear energy.
Support for fuel cell research is strong in New Mexico, where Gov. Richardson has said his goal is to make 10 percent of the state's energy, by 2010, come from renewable resources, including wind and solar energy.
The governor wants his state to be at the forefront of fuel cell technology and is encouraging a proposed national fuel cell center to be located in New Mexico.
"When you talk about win-win propositions, fuel cell technology is one of the best. It creates two very important things - cleaner, renewable energy, and jobs," Richardson recently told industries who met to talk about hydrogen technology.
New Mexico's Sen. Pete Dominici, a Republican who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote recently that "the best way to produce hydrogen, with no pollution in the production process, is through nuclear energy." He is pushing for combining the expertise Los Alamos has in nuclear energy with its knowledge of fuel-cell technology.
"Nuclear power could be an important aspect in making both hydrogen and electricity," Stroh said.
Would New Mexico use the idea to push for nuclear capabilities at the lab to make hydrogen?
"That's not even on our radar screen right now," said Richardson spokesman Pahl Shipley.