Thursday, January 24, 2008
I went to this building in Milford, CT, a grey industrial looking thing with tired blue trim. I’d heard about Avalence from my partner, Steve, and he had come back from meeting with them hopping up and down with excitement. “These guys,” bounce, bounce, “make fuel from water.”Debbie Moss, a principal in the company, she seemed extrememly pleasant and accomodating, so I honored my appointment which, as it turns out, was not to be with Debbie, but with Tom, the Chief Technical Officer. I walked in, introduced myself, “Miles Shapiro with BIOS Buildings Technologies,” and I was shown to a metal chair and a random set of old magazines. I was told Tom would be with me shortly, and so he was. He took me through a room that had one of those lunch tables used in elementary schools in the South during the 1960′s. The walls were grey. There was a water dispenser without water. We meandered through a brief hallway and headed left into what can only be described as a very large garage. There were these huge boxes, about the size of those boxes you used to see on “Let’s Make a Deal,” you know, the one’s “behind where Carol Merrill is standing.” Big. And each one of these boxes, some with an outside covering in blue plastic and others with grey metal coverings, had a regularly positioned cluster of metal cylinders, four feet long and no more than 4-5 inches in diameter. Out of the top end of each of the cylinders (it turns out the machine I was looking at had 24) two metal tubes, maybe 1/4 inch in diameter, poked out and led to black hoses that snaked in an arc somewhere into the machine. From below, one of those black tubes ran into the cylinder. Then it all goes into this big box like on the game show, and in the box are these scuba-looking tanks, only twice as long and thicker round and black. Of course there were a slew of buttons and electrical connections with color-coded wires and panels which opened up to stuff I wouldn’t even bother trying to describe. Needless to add, I was in water a tad too deep for me to know what was really going on, but Tom was an extremely patient man, and more importantly, he liked to talk about what it was he was doing.He explained to me that in those cylinders were essentially two compartments separated by a thin membrane. In one compartment went the anode and in the other went the diode– as an aside, I don’t exactly know what those things are– and from the bottom in comes water. Simple H2O, but rather pure or else all the other junk that might be in the water would sit on the bottom of the cylinder and build up and eventually short the entire thing out. So in short, you run two ends of energy through the water, which they refer to as electrolysis, which is not the removal of unsightly hair, but can be translated into shocking the crap out of the water, and the water molecules break into Hydrogen and Oxygen. So one of those tubes heading out of the top of the cylinder is the Hydrogen line and the other one is the Oxygen line. The big aqua lung containers in the machine store the Hydrogen. You then tap into the hydrogen and use it as fuel, just like you do when you use propane gas. Sounds fundamentally simple. Shock water, catch the two resultant gases. Use one as fuel. Sell the other to hospitals that need pure oxygen. I get it. However, the truly compelling element was more along my line of thinking, and that is the cost of the thing. Each little coupling on top of the cylinder, so there were two per cylinder and twenty four cylinders, each one of those was five dollars. Each one of the black hoses, carbon filtered tubing, cost 50 dollars. So you have 240 dollars in couplings, 2400 in tubes, and you haven’t even gotten to the idea of welding the metal stuff together and correctly situating the anode and cathode and membrane for each cylinder. No wonder those things cost $200,000. Thus, the remainder of my discussion with Tom was about honing the designs of these machines for maximum production of hydrogen and then being able to reproduce each design without all of the difficulties in building a prototype. The idea of mass production of these things was beyond the ken. Tom was hoping to make maybe thirty to fifty of these machines of various sizes and capacities in a single year, because now they can only produce around ten, and each one is a one off.But the truth is, the one missing component is money… funding. And although these Avalence guys are amazingly innovative and perhaps have the final answer to the global warming crisis, they don’t have sufficient funds to move forward quickly enough to warrant switching over to hydrogen fuel instead of petroleum. Car companies have designed prototypes for hydrogen run fuel cell cars, and in California, New York City, Washington, D.C. and a few other random outposts, some variant of Tom’s machine sits in a gas station for hydrogen fueled cars to fill ‘er up. But until enough people have enough of these cars, it won’t be cost effective for gas stations to pay $200,000 for one of Tom’s machines to only sell 3 pounds of hydrogen at 5000 pounds/square inch per car fill up. Now these cars with those three pounds will travel for 150 to 200 miles, probably as much as one would with a normal tank of gas, but the cost is no bonanza for the driver or the gas station owner, and therein lies the problem.It is about money folks! That is what it will always be about. And we can sit around and rub our hands together in worry until we make them chapped and bloody, but the global warming issue is not going to go away until somebody makes green=greed. I understand that sounds surgical and without conscience or feeling, but that is the real world. And the real world is going to get warmer and warmer until we find a way to make that hydrogen gas car a bargain for John Q. Public and me and you. But, you know what? After meeting Tom, and to a similar extent Debbie and Steve Nagy, another principal in this company of innovators, I believe they are going to sit in that ugly garage building and tinker and adapt and change and fix and fuss and finally, they are going to make it cheaper to be green. So there is hope.
- Miles Shapiro