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Fox Valley Villages Sun Story, 9/28/06: Biggert on Board with Alternative Energy

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Fox Valley Villages Sun Story, 9/28/06: Biggert on board with alternative energy

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert wants America to start using alternatives to oil.

To promote the utilization of alternative energy, Biggert, R-Hinsdale, toured a fuel cell-powered bus Monday at Northern Illinois University's Naperville campus, 1120 E. Diehl Road.

The 40-foot bus is one of four built by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., that run on methanol. The methanol is converted into hydrogen and mixed with oxygen to power fuel cells.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that takes chemical energy and converts it to electrical energy. The primary fuel cell conductors are hydrogen and oxygen. The natural reactants emit no pollution or noise - just water vapor.

"We just have to find the way to reduce our dependency on foreign oils," Biggert said.

Biggert is chairwoman of the Energy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Sciences.

She also sponsored the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application Act of 2006. If it passes, it will promote the development of alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind, fuel cells and clean coal.

"Companies have developed the cars and buses, but it's still in research," Biggert said of fuel cells.

A General Motors prototype fuel cell-powered vehicle that Biggert had the opportunity to drive would cost consumers about $1 million today.

"By 2010 to 2015 they expect to have something on the market," she said. "This is a good thing to do as the volatility of gas prices go up and down."

Rejhu Balan, an NIU student pursuing a master's in electrical engineering, said fuel cell power is a clean form of energy.

"It really is simple technology," he explained to Biggert on Monday. "But when it goes on a real car there are many issues, like onboard storage of hydrogen."

Because fuel cell technology is evolving faster than Georgetown University can build the buses, no two vehicles are alike, said Donald Mase, technical director of the fuel cell program.

It took Georgetown's fuel cell bus program four years and millions of dollars to build the bus that stopped in Naperville this week.

Mase is beginning work on the university's fifth bus, which is expected to be ready in three years. Although fuel cell costs having decreased since the debut of the first bus powered by such means in 1994, the newest vehicle still will cost millions, he said.

"There's still a lot to research with fuel cells in regards to cost and durability (and regarding) replacement cost of the fuel cell versus traditional consumer vehicle engines," Mase said.

This is where NIU's College of Engineering and Engineering Technology comes in, having teamed with the fuel cell research team at Argonne National Laboratory to develop more durable and less costly fuel cells.

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