The executives at Fulton-based Redox Power Systems are making a bold bet: The homes and businesses of the future will be powered by an extraterrestrial-looking apparatus loaded with fuel cells that convert natural gas and air into electricity.
The technology promises to be more efficient and environmentally friendly than the systems that power many buildings today, but the company has to first overcome the economic and social barriers that often beset renewable energy ventures.
“We have to show off a bit and show we can do what others can’t,” chief executive Warren Citrin said. “The best way to do it is by example.”
Citrin expects a fully functioning prototype of its PowerSERG 2-80, known to its inventors as “the Cube,” will be complete by December. From there, Redox must raise money from investors to ramp up production and start selling to commercial real estate developers and builders.
The device, which measures one cubic meter, can be kept in a basement or on the roof, where it will generate up to 80 kilowatts of electricity, depending on the number of fuel cells inside. One cube could power several houses or a gas station. A few could keep a grocery store lit.
The technology has been under development for a quarter century in a University of Maryland laboratory that’s currently staffed by three scientists, eight graduate students and six undergraduates.
They continue to push the science forward by testing materials that may conduct more electricity or discovering processes to make the power conversion more efficient, said Eric D. Wachsman, who heads the project as director of the university’s Energy Research Center.
But fuel cell technology isn’t the only renewable energy source available. In fact, it is often dwarfed in both attention and investment by more widely known alternatives, such as solar and wind power or biofuels.
“Solar and wind are great when the sun is out and the wind is blowing, but you want your power to come on whenever you flip the switch,” Wachsman said. The batteries used to store the energy for use at other times are expensive, he added.
Fuel cell technology has also fallen out of favor with some investors and companies who say it has failed to deliver the kind of power capacity scientists initially expected and that the cost of the technology puts it out of reach for most homes and businesses.
Chris Ainscough, a senior engineer at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said the latest fuel cell technologies have proven to be as efficient, if not more so, than alternative energy sources. The key, however, is bringing down the cost.
“That’s when you see the tipping point and you see people start to adopt this,” Ainscough said. “You saw this with hybrid vehicles. You saw fuel costs spike and people said, ‘I can save money on my horrible commute with a hybrid’.”
Wachsman said the technology has improved in recent years such that the fuel cells developed and patented by the University of Maryland in particular are able to generate enough electricity at a low enough cost to make the cells commercially viable.
“It was always ready to be commercialized,” Wachsman said. “It was just finding someone to finance it.”
Redox Power Systems has emerged as that someone. The company expects to charge $1,000 per kilowatt for the cube, a price that Citrin claims costs less than many competitors.
Citrin started data and display software company Solipsys in 1996 and sold it to Raytheon about seven years later for an undisclosed sum. He first became aware of the fuel cell technology as a member of the engineering school’s board of visitors.
Citrin went to his former partners from Solipsys to provide the initial funding for Redox, he said, in order to mitigate some of the technology’s risk before seeking venture capital. The company could be at that point by the end of this year, he said.