BMW and the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA) announced Monday they plan to study a new way of developing fuel to power more than 100 vehicles the German automaker uses at its Spartanburg facility.
The company hopes to use an unusual source– landfill gas– to do it.
“In the spirit of continuous improvement, we are always pursuing additional, sustainable methods of capturing renewable energy, including our existing source of landfill gas,” said Josef Kerscher, President of BMW Manufacturing, in a statement.
Right now, BMW powers 30 percent of its plant using methane piped in from a Spartanburg landfill. However, only about 50 percent of the gas is used in the process. The theory is that one of the byproducts can be purified into hydrogen gas. That hydrogen could then be used as fuel for the fuel cell forklifts, tuggers and other vehicles used by BMW at its new X3 production facility.
BMW officials arrived at that conclusion after conversations with the SCRA in 2009. Russ Keller is vice president for Business Development at Advanced Technology International, the private, nonprofit affiliate of the state-owned SCRA. He worked with BMW to secure a $575,000 grant from the Energy Department and to raise the matching funds to win the grant.
Keller says it would be an entirely new procedure, “People have done the various pieces of landfill-to-methane, methane-to-hydrogen process before,” he said, “but nobody’s put it together end-to-end.”
BMW cannot use traditional combustion engines for vehicles that operate indoors, due to the health concerns. The company began using the fuel cell forklifts in 2009. Since the hydrogen cells require only four minutes of refueling, the company said it was more economical than electric batteries that have to be changed every seven hours.
Since the hydrogen has to be delivered to BMW from off-site, company officials wanted to find a way to create it at the plant. The project depends upon a feasibility study SCRA is currently funding that will be completed by September. If the study is successful, the company will begin the second phase of purifying the gas, followed by a six-month period of test runs on the vehicles.
The problem is that fuel cells require pure hydrogen, so any impurities in the gas (such as sulfur) would damage the batteries. That is where Keller and other officials are most concerned about possible hiccups in the conversion. “Fuel cells are much less forgiving of impurities than combustion engines,” Keller said. While the technology has long existed to extract hydrogen from methane gas, engineers are not sure if it can be refined enough in a cost-efficient way.
Also involved in the project are Gas Technology Institute, Ameresco Inc., and the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance.
If successful, Keller said the project has implications for other companies in South Carolina, “BMW is 9.5 miles from the landfill that supports them. If you went around the country and drew a 9.5 mile circle around large landfills, it might be interesting to see what kind of industries fall inside that circle.”