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Ponaganset students use fuel cells to power a Model T

This is not your father’s internal combustion engine. Students at Ponaganset High School helped reconfigure a replica 1923 Ford Model T Roadster to run on hydrogen fuel cells.

NORTH SCITUATE– It’s taken a few years, but the students at Ponaganset High School in Glocester have finally done it.

Lead by science teacher Ross McCurdy and taking advantage of technical help from pipe fitter Mike Lewis and computer whiz John Murphy, they recently completed the conversion of a replica 1923 Ford Model T Roadster into an electric car fueled by hydrogen fuel cells.

“It was a two-part program,” said McCurdy in a recent interview. “First to get the technology running in the lab, and then to integrate it into the car.”

McCurdy was surrounded by a number of past and present students who had worked on the project. They assembled at the home of Jim Sullivan, a hot rod enthusiast and electrical engineer who sold the team the Model T back in 2005.

Sullivan lets the team use his garage to work on the car; McCurdy said much of the work has been carried out after school hours.

The move to hydrogen fuel technology followed an earlier project to replace the car’s 350-cubic-inch Chevrolet engine with an electric engine powered by batteries. McCurdy and his students completed that project in mid-2006.

To fit the hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen tanks, they had to cut the car in half and lengthen it to a whopping 29 feet.

“It [now] has the turning radius of a sailing yacht,” said McCurdy.

In addition, Lewis developed a unique cooling system up front while Murphy designed a computer program to translate the hexadecimal language of the fuel cell and computer into comprehensible readings, including available electric power.

The guts of the system is a Hydrogenic HyPM 12 kilowatt fuel cell. The technology works by separating the electrons and protons in hydrogen and forcing the electrons through a circuit, which converts them into electricity. They are them recombined with the protons and an oxidizing agent to form water as the only emission apart from heat.

“That’s the beauty of fuel-cell [technology],” said McCurdy. “You can drink the emissions.”

The fuel cell is housed in a black metal container about the size and shape of a large suitcase. It is flanked by two bulbous 3,600-pound per square inch (psi) cylinders that give it a 100-mile range.

Fuel-cell technology is expensive and the car and related projects at the school are partly financed through federal grants and partly through donations. Praxair, for example, has long donated hydrogen to the school, McCurdy said.

McCurdy has been leading alternative fuel projects at Ponaganset High since 2001. The work has resulted in Sen. Jack Reed helping to get the Department of Energy to fund a new energy lab at the school.

“It’s been five years in the making,” McCurdy said, adding that the lab will have a large working area on the ground floor with doors big enough to allow vehicles in and out, in addition to technical and communications facilities. Groundbreaking is scheduled for December.

McCurdy, 47, married with three young children, has taught at Ponaganset High for 12 years and is currently the alternative energy coordinator as well as science teacher.

He moved into teaching following six years in the Air Force where he served as a Russian linguist and a number of years pursuing a career as a rock star with a cover rock ’n’ roll band, Dryver.

Indeed, his background in a rock band helped his first foray into fuel cells when he spearheaded a project to power a school rock ’n’ roll band with the technology.

That led to the decision to use it to power a vehicle.

At the same time, McCurdy and his team have not restricted themselves to exploring electric power as the only alternative source of energy.

Last year, he and three students drove a biodiesel-powered 1997 GM ZK350 pickup, that had been donated by ConEdison Solutions, from Bonnet Shores to Malibu Beach, Calif., and back again.

They took 270 gallons of fuel, which carried them across the country and restocked in California. The entire trip took two weeks.

“It was an unbelievable trip,” said Wylie Smith, 19, of Foster, adding that working with McCurdy had helped him decide what he wanted to do. He is currently in his first year in the Automotive Program at the New England Institute of Technology.

The team now uses the truck to haul the Model T in a trailer.

Zane Lewis, the 19-year old son of Mike Lewis who is currently studying engineering at CCRI in Warwick, also crossed the country in the truck.

After switching on the system, he worked through the computer to make sure the fuel cell was generating enough energy and then started the car.

A whirring whine ensued, reminiscent of the time machine in the TV show Doctor Who and the car silently set off.

Supplementing the fuel cell output were four 12-volt batteries. That compared to the 12 batteries in the battery electric version pumping out 144 volts.

Lewis said the limited battery power resulted in a lack of power, especially on hills where the battery electric version had more oomph.

McCurdy said that problem could be addressed through ultracapacitors, which combine capacitors’ ability to smooth the output of power supplies with an ability to store large amounts of electricity very quickly.

Chris Charest, 17, of Glocester said he had been involved in the project for three years.

What was the high point in the program?

He paused. “This is definitely a high point,” he said, looking over the car. “Seeing it finished.”

September 26, 2009 - 3:28 PM