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Industrial Fuel Cell Power Plant Opens in Texas

A big step has been taken in energy innovation Tuesday at a chemical plant in the city of Freeport, Texas, about 100 kilometers south of Houston. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Texas Governor Rick Perry inaugurated a fuel-cell electricity system. It is the world's first such plant operated by electricity generated from fuel cells. This pilot project could lead to further development of the technology for lighting homes and powering vehicles.

The venue for this first test of fuel cell technology in providing power to a chemical plant could not have been more ideal. Dow Chemical's Oyster Creek plant in Freeport produces hydrogen as a by-product of such chemicals as chlorine, and hydrogen is what the fuel cells use to make electricity.

The first fuel cell powered up at the plant produces only 75 kilowatts of electricity, but eventually plant operators will add around 400 of the units, each of which is smaller than a household refrigerator. The full compliment of fuel cells will produce 35 megawatts of electricity, which is about two percent of what the plant needs to operate.

That represents a large savings for the plant in energy costs and also makes the plant more environmentally sound. Fuel cells emit only water in the process of producing electricity. For this reason, environmental activists and public officials have long viewed fuel cells as potentially clean source of energy.

Governor Perry, in his remarks at the inauguration in Freeport, spoke of a future world powered by fuel cells. "Today is about pushing the envelope of science and technology to revolutionize how we live as a society. Fuel-cell technology has great promise to shift us away from a dependency on fossil fuels and help build a hydrogen-powered economy."

The fuel cell installed at the Dow plant was made by General Motors. The Detroit-based automobile manufacturer has been experimenting with fuel cells to operate vehicles. Prototypes equipped with fuel cells use quiet electric motors and produce almost no pollution.

But there are still many hurdles to clear before fuel cells become a part of everyday life. For one thing, hydrogen production is expensive and hydrogen is also volatile, leading to safety concerns. Fuel cell advocates, however, note that there have been significant advances in the technology in the last several years. They say pilot projects like the one at the Dow Chemical plant here in Texas will help scientists refine the efficiency of the fuel cell units and move the world closer to a environmentally friendly energy future.