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Environmentalist shows new energy

ESF fuel cell to utilize biomass


By Aaron Munzer - Staff Writer

November 18, 2004

New technological approaches to sustainability that the college could use in the future were shown off Tuesday.

Cornelius Murphy, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, showed an under-utilized technology that is up to three times more efficient then present internal combustion engines, produces little carbon dioxide emissions and only runs on biomass.

The device, called a molten carbonate fuel cell, will be installed at SUNY ESF and will provide roughly 10 percent of that campus' energy needs. At the same time, it will also facilitate research into making renewable energy sources economical.

The 250-kilowatt fuel cell is the only one of its type in New York state and one of five in the nation.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that changes hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat without combustion. The fuel cell most prevalent today is the proton exchange membrane, which operates at about a 40 percent efficiency rate, compared to the molten carbonate fuel cell, which runs at 70 percent, Murphy said.

Although at first the device will be fueled with natural gas, SUNY-ESF has plans to install an attached gasifier, which will refine biomass into syngas, a clean and efficient hydrogen-rich fuel that will power the fuel cell, Murphy said.

The biomass that will power the cell is salix, a high-yielding woody shrub. In three years, a tended acre of salix will produce 20 tons of biomass. Additionally, salix requires no irrigation, does not deplete nitrogen from the soil and is a completely renewable source of energy.

"For every unit of energy you put into growing woody biomass, you get 18 units of energy out," Murphy said.

Murphy said that the need for alternative energy is steadily growing and will become even more important as natural gas reserves are depleted.

Crude petroleum is about $46 per barrel. In about 30 years, the world's need for fuel will outpace production, he said.

"Petroleum crude oil is from the forests of millions of years ago," Murphy said. "With science, we're trying to accelerate nature and use our own renewable biomass. We're very interested in getting off of a petroleum economy."

Senior Kathleen McCarthy, an environmental studies major, said she was interested in this technology's implications for Ithaca College.

"I'd like to see what we can do here," she said.

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