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NATURE

Police pioneers with fuel-cell precinct

fuel cell
This fuel cell powers the entire Central Park police precinct
 ALSO:
Solar roofs get trendy in California
  

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 2:18 p.m. EDT (1818 GMT)

(CNN) -- The Central Park police precinct in New York never seemed to have enough electricity, maybe because it was built in 1871 as a horse stable.

Now it is the first police precinct in the nation to be powered by space-age technology -- a fuel cell.

"There was never enough fuel to power the air conditioners, the lights, the computers," said Capt. James O'Neill. "It was a very difficult work situation. It wasn't a wonderful work environment."

A new power plant -- a fuel cell made by Connecticut-based Onsi Corp. -- now provides the station with virtually pollution-free electricity, making it independent of the local power grid.

NASA first developed fuel cells to provide power for spacecraft. Since then, other companies have advanced the technology somewhat and found commercial applications.

Gary Mittleman's company, Plug Power, has created a demonstration house, all of it powered by a fuel cell.

"It's space-age technology come down to Earth," Mittleman said. "Because we've been able to lower the costs, we're going to make this economically affordable to every single person in America."

automobile
Fuel cells are currently being tested for use in automobiles   

The process relies on hydrogen, extracted from a fuel like natural gas, propane or methanol, as well as oxygen from the air.

The catalyst surface of a membrane splits the gas molecules into protons and electrons. The electrons travel around the membrane -- creating electricity.

The protons pass through the membrane, eventually reacting with the oxygen in the air and forming water, one of the byproducts of the process along with heat and carbon dioxide. But far less of those potentially polluting byproducts are created than in traditional combustion.

Engineers already are testing fuel cells in cars and to power hospitals, hotels and banks. The U.S. Department of Energy believes fuel cells may be accessible to the average consumer within 10 years.

"It's clean. It's widely applicable and we believe it's a technology of the future," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.

For now, it's powering a 19th century stable turned into a 20th century police precinct.

CNN Correspondent Frank Buckley contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Waste to fuel process wins award
July 1, 1999
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June 30, 1999
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June 29, 1999
Lab develops engine for the future
June 17, 1999

RELATED SITES:
ONSI Corporation
U.S. Department of Energy
Central Park Precinct
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