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Powerball Wizard?

Utah entrepeneurs hope to unlock the secret of cheap hydrogen energy. Will anyone buy it?



Powerball International doesn’t have anything to do with that grand multi-state lottery that makes dukes out of dropouts. But if it did, it might make sense. After all, Powerball International says it’s mining for a jackpot that, if it hits, could do more than bring money and fame to the investors. It could, as they say, clean up the environment, provide seemingly endless energy reservoirs, and like good American innovators, satisfy ever-more demanding consumers.

But then, others say it could be just another company that capitalism’s brutal efficiency will throw away with a thousand others as the country moves toward an ever-greater reliance on clean-burning hydrogen in place of crude petroleum.

Powerball’s President William Freise says it is a “tiny” company that could change the world. “We’ve created a technology that works and no credible chemist will debate it. We have a tremendous amount of promise. Nobody has done what we’ve done.”

For six years, Powerball has been refining its innovation: Ping-pong sized sodium balls that come fully loaded with hydrogen. Scientists, engineers and capitalists around the world are racing toward similar innovations and products that use hydrogen to power everything from cars to power plants. Hydrogen is already the main fuel used to launch the Space Shuttle into orbit. And most major car companies have produced small fleets of vehicles that run solely on hydrogen. Hydrogen advocates in the scientific and business worlds are betting on fuel-cell technology to take over the energy world and build the foundation of what they call a “hydrogen economy,” and it may turn out to be a good bet. For one, hydrogen fuel cells seem to be just as effective as the combustion engines that have dominated automotive innovation since its birth and consumption of hydrogen releases nothing more harmful into the environment than pure water vapor.

Freise says that hydrogen is best stored and transported within his company’s little Powerballs. The balls, he said, could be delivered to wherever someone wants a bit of hydrogen—for instance at a refueling station for hydrogen-powered cars—dipped in water and cut open. When water hits sodium hydride (i.e. the guts of the Powerballs) it will burst into flames, but Powerball says that if you keep oxygen away from the whole encounter, you can avoid the fire and capture the hydrogen gas that escapes. Pump the gas into a little new-age hydrogen-powered Mustang and you’ve got a revolution.

If Powerball’s supposition is correct—if the only thing standing in the way of a hydrogen economy is the obstacle of transporting and storing the gaseous gob—than Freise and his colleagues may have a point. They may be, as Forbes magazine speculated in a recent feature on Powerball, “on the verge of solving the fuel-cell conundrum.”

But Forbes also wondered if the Powerball technology was “Breakthrough—or Bunko?” It may be neither—just plain worthless.

University of Utah Professor Terry Ring has seen many semi-desperate entrepreneurs roaming the halls of the Merrill Engineering Building at the U, where he has taught and done research for more than 15 years. Many of them, he says, have no engineering experience at all, but their ambition sometimes leads them to great ideas. More often than not they hit roadblocks, no matter how good the idea. That’s when they come to engineers like Ring.

“You often see this: Ambitious groups of people working tenaciously on what might seem like a hare-brained idea. At some point, no matter how good an idea is, you need to hand it over to competent engineers.”

And that’s what brought Jed Checketts and his young company Powerball International to Ring three years ago.

Ring says that he was immediately impressed with the idea Checketts brought to him. He became an engineer because he loved to solve problems and to him, Powerball’s seemed like the perfect problem to tackle. Ring’s only complaint was that they should have come to him sooner.

“When I saw what these guys were trying to do, I jumped all over it. After all, why work on something that could just be a little evolutionary change in technology when you have a chance to work on something that could have a major impact on the world economy?”

That’s Powerball’s promise. If the science checks out—and there is no indication that it won’t—people like Ring say it has the opportunity to achieve spectacular financial goals. “Powerball has done a lot of things to minimize risk on both the technological and financial sides of this thing. If they continue the way they have, they are going to continue to minimize risk and at some point the risk is going to be quite low.”

The company’s promise lies in its patents. Freise says the technology is simple and that’s what makes it so attractive. Workers and machines fill small plastic shells with sodium hydride whose danger (remember, they explode into flames when they touch water out in the open) is contained once the shells are welded closed. The Powerballs sit stored in water and when, for instance, a refueling station wants a supply of hydrogen, patented Powerball machines cut the balls open and hydrogen bubbles up. Afterward comes the best part. Powerball’s pride and joy, and the exclamation mark on the whole system, is its recycling patent. After a refueling station or hydrogen user has extracted the gas from the Powerballs, they can send them back to a Powerball recycling center where, Freise says, it’s easy to turn them into new ones.

Powerballs satisfy any niche that may be created or that currently exists in which somebody wants hydrogen but does not want to have to transport it in large tanks as a gas. The company claims that people could move the little balls in trucks or even backpacks.

The simplicity and promise of the technology attracted its principal investor, Robert Ipson, who is mostly known in Utah as the former owner of the Bonneville Raceway. He and dozens of other investors have kept Powerball alive even though the company has never actually sold a Powerball.

Freise says even though refueling stations for hydrogen-powered cars don’t yet exist in many places, the technology isn’t limited to use with automobile and other transportation innovations. If a cellular company wanted to erect a tower in a developing country that couldn’t be counted on to provide it with reliable electricity, Freise says they could truck some Powerballs out to the site, use a fuel cell and some water to turn the hydrogen inside of them into electricity, and voilà, reliable energy.

Listening to him tell it, it’s a wonder they haven’t hit that jackpot already. Or is it?

Although it’s the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen doesn’t actually exist on earth. At least, it doesn’t exist on its own. Unlike petroleum, natural gas or coal, you can’t pay someone to dig it up or look for vast underground reserves of it. It always exists with something else. In water, it’s the H in H20. It finds itself in coal, oil, natural gas, methane and millions of other combinations. Or, as Amory Lovins puts it, two-thirds of all the energy we consume now is already hydrogen—it’s just bound to polluting partners.

As if he were one of the great scientists, engineers, artists, intellectuals and underappreciated innovators that make up the heroes of Ayn Rand’s infamous novel Atlas Shrugged, Amory Lovins and his colleagues have made a remote mountain region in Colorado their home. Lovins’ bio is almost as unbelievable as it is impressive: Educated at Oxford and Harvard in experimental physics, admirers of his work have given him eight honorary doctorates and dozens of awards. The Wall Street Journal named him one of a small group “most likely to change the course of business in the ’90s.” Newsweek called him “one of the Western world’s most influential energy thinkers.” Scientists and businessmen alike consider him one of the world’s foremost authorities on hydrogen technology and what it will take to build the “hydrogen economy.”

His most recent personal contribution to the business world comes in the form of the Hypercar, a lightweight futuristic automobile and company that he envisioned and then handed over to a group of engineers and businessmen (who also happen to locate their headquarters in the heart of the Colorado Rockies). As head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit consulting company that counsels private and public interests on “the efficient and restorative use of resources,” he regularly commands an audience of national heads of state. When City Weekly talked to him, he had just returned to Colorado from China.

He says the conundrum Powerball International is trying to solve has already been solved. The storage and transportation of hydrogen is not at all a “devilish problem” as Forbes implied. He said that was a myth. “It might be an obstacle if you could only imagine moving pure hydrogen gas in trucks with bulky metal tanks. But we can do it in two other ways.”

For right now, Lovins concedes that the easiest way to make hydrogen available for those who would want to fill up their car with it is to make it right at the refueling pump. But don’t use bulky and potentially dangerous hydrides like Powerballs—use natural gas. Why not pump natural gas to a refueling station—as most Wasatch Front homeowners know, pumping natural gas around a community is not technologically unimaginable—and reform it into hydrogen there? Reformation is a simple procedure, he said.

Eventually, Lovins said, as the infrastructure develops, hydrogen could be piped into refueling stations after undergoing a reformation process from a central location. In other words, just as natural gas is pumped to homeowners, hydrogen could be pumped directly to refueling stations where the owner of a hydrogen-powered car could then fill ’er up. “Eventually that would be the ideal, but for the first decade or so we will do fine converting natural gas to hydrogen at the location you prefer,” Lovins said.

So, no need for Powerballs? “The main problem with that kind of technology is that you are burdened by the cost in weight and material and of moving it all around rather than just the hydrogen itself,” Lovins said. “The technology they have created seems feasible enough, just not advantageous. There may be special applications where this sort of thing makes sense; I just haven’t thought of them yet.”

U Professor Adel Sarofim, another consultant to Powerball, cautioned not to underestimate the trouble with transporting hydrogen in its gaseous form. Hydrogen has one of the lowest energy contents compared to its volume of any of the gases. It’s no accident that petroleum is used now as much as it is—it has one of the highest. Sodium hydride (Powerballs) can pack up to 600 times the hydrogen into the same area as can be pushed into a tank. But they are still heavy. Putting hydrogen into a dense and potentially dangerous metal isn’t appealing to some who study the problem. Others point out that Powerball’s much hailed recycling system also emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants. That kind of negates the environmental benefit. Those might be the reasons why Powerball hasn’t been successful mass-marketing its spherical supplies. Peter Hoffman thinks that might be the case, and he’s pretty well positioned to know.

Hoffman gained recognition last year when MIT Press published his book Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. He told City Weekly that he had heard of Powerball before—he actually had an argument with the original entrepreneur Jed Checketts, who still holds the company’s patents even though he was ousted from the company over a year ago, according to Forbes.

Hoffman said he had heard of a few companies that showed interest in Powerball’s innovation years ago, but none came through with any deals. Since then “Powerball’s name hasn’t come up in any sort of noteworthy circumstances,” said Hoffman, who edits the monthly journal The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Letter.

From his office in Colorado, Lovins said he hopes Powerball succeeds and finds a market. “Any development of technology relating to hydrogen is welcome. There should be a lot of different solutions and they should all compete.”

That competition will continue to drive what Lovins said is ultimately inevitable. From the start of the industrial revolution, energy consumers have gradually moved toward fuels with higher hydrogen content: from wood to coal to petroleum to natural gas. We’re already two-thirds of the way to a total hydrogen economy. “The transition has a very powerful technical and economic logic behind it,” Lovins said.

You needn’t tell Arden Pope what that might mean for public health. Pope has observed first hand how a reduction in air pollution can immediately translate into improved physical well-being. The BYU environmental economics professor watched as hospital visits for respiratory illnesses declined incredibly in Utah Valley every time the belching Geneva Steel plant closed down, which it did again last year.

Pope has also watched how improved automobile emissions standards already in existence have helped people keep their lungs clean. If cars ever made it to zero emissions, Pope said, the public health repercussions would be tremendous. “It’s quite a lot of fun to see what’s happening with technology now. If you were to predict the future, I imagine you would have to say that there will come a time when we look back at how we provide and consume energy by burning fossil fuels as a truly archaic practice—similar to the way we look at horse and buggy technology today.”

Any story about the drive toward creating a hydrogen economy obviously comes with that burdensome but exciting addendum, i.e. maybe someday it would mean we had saved the environment.

The excitement of what he’s talking about belies Amory Lovins’ rather academic tone when he describes the progress already being made toward creating an infrastructure that would support a hydrogen economy.

Hypercar’s own Revolution Concept Car, he said, was the same size as a normal sport utility vehicle but made of a lightweight carbon-fiber technology and powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The car could go from 0 to 100 miles per hour in 8.3 seconds and, traveling at 55 mph, it would consume as much energy as a standard SUV uses to run the air conditioner. In the Hypercar, the hydrogen could be carried in a tank and compressed to 5,000 pounds per square inch. With that tank alone it could match the performance standards of regular SUVs. But, Lovins said, they have tested a prototype 10,000 psi tank that would allow the car to travel more than 600 miles without visiting a refueling station.

The storage of hydrogen in a car is not a problem, Lovins said. “The notion that storing hydrogen in a vehicle is problematic comes from a very old assumption that inefficient and bulky tanks would hold you back. But carmakers and others have shown that you can compensate with lighter crash-worthy tanks and fuel-cell engines that are themselves much lighter than combustion engines.”

Then there’s the whole environment thing. Fuel cells emit no pollution. But environmentalists quickly warn that’s not the end of the story. While the cars may stop emitting pollution, you still have to produce hydrogen, and absent the discovery of some vast reservoir of the gas, doing so may not be so clean.

Any high school chemistry student can produce hydrogen by running an electrical current through water. At one end oxygen boils up to the surface, at the other, hydrogen—more or less the opposite of what happens in a fuel-cell engine. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are passed together to a material known as a catalyst that provides just the right conditions for the two to combine. One of the products of that combination is obvious—water. The other is electricity, which, in a car, would flow to a motor and propel you.

Companies and communities all around the world have tested fleets of fuel-cell vehicles that run on hydrogen produced in this very way: running an electric current through water. And the more environmentally conscious of the tests have gotten that electric current from sources such as the sun and wind. A motorist could never drive efficiently with a solar panel on the roof of the car. But one could use that solar panel to run electricity through water and make hydrogen, put that into a tank and, if Lovins is correct, be able to drive as fast and as far as now.

Lovins and others agree though that at least at first, hydrogen would be more efficiently produced by taking it out of coal, petroleum and natural gas in a more technically complicated process known as reformation. He says oil and natural-gas companies could actually make more money by turning everything they have into hydrogen instead of sending it all off to be burned. (So it’s not only their environmental consciences that are inducing oil companies like Shell to invest in research and development of a hydrogen market.)

And with natural gas another issue emerges. If hydrogen can be made from it, a hydrogen economy would have no need to rely on oil-rich regions of the world to power itself. Natural gas is plentiful in North America. Powerball’s Freise said that might be the best reason to pay attention to what his company is doing. “Why are we thinking about fighting a war in Iraq?” he asked. “The reason we care is because of oil. Clean air, global warming, that’s why interest in hydrogen started. These things are wonderful, but national energy security adds another compelling dynamic. It’s clear we need something different.”

The blunt cynicism of the Forbes magazine feature on Powerball that appeared on Jan. 20 was apparent from the third sentence, especially questioning the merits and viability of the company’s technology. After all, the article said, this is coming out of Utah, the home of that massive cold-fusion hoax.

In 1989, professors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced in Utah that they had helped cold fusion occur in a jar at room temperature. Such a discovery—had it not been bogus—would have meant unimaginable glory for the professors, the university and the state. But of course, all it brought was shame in the end.

Professor Ring says he still hears about it, not only in caustic press accounts like the Forbes story but many times as he visits conferences and colleagues around the world. “It’s one of the things the world knows about. There are the Olympics and the artificial heart they could concentrate on, but there are the bad things like cold fusion that is often pointed out. The Forbes remark was kind of a low blow.”

But the magazine’s cynicism also focused on the scientifically inexperienced Powerball leadership and its early tenacious innovator Jed Checketts. Not to mention the fact that the company seemed to be on its last leg with only a few hundred thousand dollars in savings and no news of incoming revenue.

Freise said the company is fine. “We’re small, we have very few operating costs. The money we have will last us at least a year.”

He may be beaming with confidence, but Freise seems uncomfortable with the publicity that would inevitably accompany the entrepreneurial blossoming he dreams of. He was reluctant to talk about the inventor of the very technology he is trying to hawk, Jed Checketts, who has been the subject of speculation since his ouster. And he did his best to keep City Weekly from talking to anyone else in the company, including the director of production, Matt Fisher, who moonlights as a University of Utah undergraduate.

Guarding technical secrets, or something else?

Those aspects of Powerball’s story would simply be “distractions,” Freise said.

“[Checketts] came up with a brilliant idea and I credit him for that. And if we become something bigger, he will certainly receive his due credit. But my job is beyond that now. I want to move on. We’re on the verge of marketing a technology that will change the world.”

That is, of course, if anybody buys it.