Putting the Sun to Work

Story Number: NNS020820-02Release Date: 8/20/2002 1:44:00 PM
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By Helen L. Huntley, NAVAIR China Lake Public Affairs Office

NAVAIR CHINA LAKE, Calif. (NNS) -- At NAVAIR's Weapons' Division site at China Lake, Calif., the Energy Program Office is making electricity while the sun shines.

Tasked to lead the solar portion of a $6 million fiscal 2002 Congressionally mandated renewable energy study in the Department of Defense (DOD), the Energy Program Office seeks more efficient ways to harness the power of the sun.

Currently, photovoltaic (PV) panels are used in combination with generators and batteries to produce electricity at four sites at China Lake. To eliminate the use of batteries and generators from the system, the Energy Program Office has awarded a $500,000 contract to Sverdrup to build a prototype regenerative fuel cell. Expected date of installation of the unit is October, 2002. The Energy Program Office also awarded a $1.5 million contract with Johnson Controls International to build and install demonstration proton exchange membrane fuel cells.

According to Chuck Combs, energy program manager, a regenerative fuel cell uses electric current provided by PV panels to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen gasses during the day. This process, known as electrolysis, is performed by an electrolyzer.

The hydrogen and oxygen are fed to the fuel cell at night to make power for nighttime use. "The term 'regenerative,'" Combs explained, "refers to the closed cycle of the system."

"We will go through about three iterations over the next three years to make the system more efficient, more tolerable to the loads we have and the weather we have," System Engineer Sam Edwards said. "The nice thing about photovoltaic systems is they have very few moving parts. Moving parts are a maintenance issue. That leaves us with our biggest maintenance headache - batteries."

Comparing batteries to babies, Edwards continued, "You have to feed them, water them, clean up after them and burp them. Ninety percent of our maintenance on PV systems is the batteries."

When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) tested a 20-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell at a facility at Edwards Air Force Base, the Energy Program Office loaned equipment and donated its expertise. The fuel cells were powered by hydrogen created from electrolysis. "Like our regenerative fuel cell, a piece of equipment used electricity to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen gasses," Combs said. "They were using electricity from the grid to run their electrolyzer. We contacted them and offered, as part of our R&D, to provide them with a set of PV panels and the interfacing electronics that would provide the electricity for their electrolyzer."

China Lake's involvement in renewable energy dates back to the 1970s when the first oil embargo caused oil prices to rise sharply. The Energy Program Office has experimented with trash-to-gas, electric vehicles, solar thermal, PV and wind energy throughout its nearly 30-year history. Today Combs, Edwards, and Mike Crom are the program staff.

The Energy Program Office has participated in installing PV/diesel/battery hybrid systems for the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy. "We've put a 450-kilowatt system at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona and an 80-kilowatt system at San Clemente Island," Edwards added.

The PV system at Superior Valley is the largest PV/diesel/battery hybrid in the world. "The system at Superior Valley replaced the diesel generator that ran 24 hours, seven days per week. It supplies power to that facility, not the grid," Edwards said.

Last year's energy crisis was the impetus for the Energy Program Office to refurbish the PV system outside the Visitor Center at the front gate. The new 4.5-kilowatt system supplies power to the grid. Except for summer when air conditioning is in use, Edwards said the system supplies enough electricity to operate the Visitor Center.

NAVAIR provides advanced warfare technology to the American Warfighter. Located in eight principal sites around the country, NAVAIR provides precision naval aviation technologies in sensors, aircraft, weapons, training, launch & recovery systems, and communication. NAVAIR warfare technology is delivering transformational service to the US Navy, to all other Department of Defense services, as well as military organizations of allies around the world.

For more information about the Naval Air Systems Command, go to www.navair.navy.mil. For more news about Naval Air Systems Command, visit their custom Navy NewsStand page at www.news.navy.mil/local/NAVAIR.

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