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Case Studies: Fuel Cells - Brooks City-Base

Location: San Antonio, TX

In San Antonio, Texas, four fuel cell systems went on-line to power several living units and an aerospace education center at Brooks City-Base. The event marked the first field installation of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells in the state of Texas.

Three systems will provide energy to several housing units on the base. The U. S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the primary funding agency responsible for the residential fuel-cell project.

These demonstration projects are using 5-kilowatt (kW) fuel cell systems, manufactured by Plug Power Inc. of Latham, N.Y. The units convert natural gas into electricity and usable heat through an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen (from natural gas) and oxygen (from the air). In simple terms, the fuel cells are similar to batteries that run continuously as long as hydrogen and oxygen are provided.

The Challenger Learning Center Project
The Challenger Learning Center provides hands-on, simulated space missions for middle school students. The single 5-kW fuel cell system at the Center not only generates electricity to power the 9,600-square-foot building, but also heats water using its own waste heat.

As this fuel cell is exposed to high summer temperatures, it will provide valuable insight on fuel cell performance in the sultry South Texas climate.

Lead flight director and facilities manager for the Challenger Learning Center, Bill Merrill, noted, "Having a fuel cell power the Center will allow us to educate the next generation of energy consumers about this alternative fuel source that is also widely used in the space program."

CPS is involved in the installation, operation and maintenance of the Challenger Center fuel cell system; and the Brooks Energy and Sustainability Lab is providing technical support.

The Residential Project
Under the residential project, electricity from three fuel cells provides energy for three 1,600-square-foot housing units in the Brooks City-Base housing area. The residential project is part of a CERL fuel cell program that encompasses 40 similar projects at several U.S. military bases.

St. Philip's College, also in San Antonio, plans to utilize the residential project to teach its students the basics of fuel cell systems as part of a broader program on advanced energy systems. Beginning in March 2003, the school will offer tours of both fuel cell sites at Brooks City-Base.