Oorja means energy in the language Sanskrit. It’s also the name of a Fremont California company selling fuel cells running on methanol.  Oorja has been using its prototype and very early production models in large material handling forklifts.  The materials handling market vehicles typically run on giant lead acid batteries instead of gasoline. The batteries weigh thousands of pounds and have to be switched out every few hours and then are charged over a period of hours.

Oorja’s Protonics’ methanol fuel cells eliminate the dangerous and time-consuming task of switching out and recharging batteries and owning the extra sets  Oorja’s OorjaPac fuel cell sits on the forklift and feeds electrons to the battery pack, charging it as the day progresses.  Filling up the fuel cell at the beginning of a shift, ideally, provides enough power for the day.  A 3.4 gallon-storage tank of methanol powers a vehicle for 10 hours.

Oorja Methanol Fuel Cell. Click image for the largest view. See the video below for more information.

The Nissan factory in Smyrna Tennessee has tested Oorja’s product over 18 months and then ordered 60 units.  Mark Sorgi, senior manager of material handling at Nissan said the factory would save near $225,000 per year and avoid spending $300,000 for battery replacements. Oorja’s fuel cells also save time and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  “We can probably run anywhere from 14 to 16 hours on one tank of methanol,” Sorgi said. “It takes 60 seconds to refill versus battery change-out that takes 15 minutes.”

Methanol, a one-carbon atom chemical is one of the mostly commonly produced chemicals in the world, costs about $1 to $2 a gallon and doesn’t have to be transported under pressure so it’s easy to ship. It’s the main chemical in windshield washer fluid. Methanol can be delivered in large plastic drums and is fully biodegradable.

Oorja has improved the performance of its fuel cell. The new 1.6-kilowatt Model H is about 25 percent to 30 percent smaller than the previous version, at $16,000 costs about 50 percent less than the earlier version, and can be refilled with methanol in about a minute.

Oorja Chief Executive Sanjiv Malhotra said the initial difficulty he faced when he started the company in 2005 was to find an appropriate fuel for the fuel cell. He settled on methanol, as it was cheap and easily available. “Fuel cells are synonymous with hydrogen,” he said. “The biggest challenge I was looking to solve was the hydrogen problem.”  Methanol is an alternative fuel that is derived from various sources including wood, grass, landfills, natural gas and coal.

Obviously Oorja is working to develop a product that can be used as a range-extender in pure electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles and aggressively working to get a unit ready in 18 to 24 months.

Last month Oorja began discussing a 5 kw unit, something large enough to power a larger American style home or small business. Used as a stationary fuel cell at about 5% of the output of the Bloom unit that garnered so much hype a month ago, the cost looks to be less than 2.5% of the Bloom, getting to the range where a consumer as a large home owner or small business in the higher grid priced energy markets can make this pay off. And for some, avoid temporary peak rates, or even blackouts.

At $15,000 it’s still richly priced and the cost of battery or capacitor storage for peak usage and inverter equipment isn’t included.  But going off grid with substantial energy demand is getting very close.  Just how this might work in a utility area with buy back of over production would be a local condition calculation.

Methanol is very easy to make and can be made from wide assortment of biomass stocks.  Sized for vehicles as a range extender, it might be a very productive choice for marketing and the company’s growth.

The Bloom fuel cell made a lot of news and blog posts.  Lets hope Oorja makes a lot of fuel cells.  I’d sure rather use methanol than hydrogen and have a vehicle range extender with enough energy output to have cabin heat and air conditioning.  Have a look and listen as Malhotra is interviewed.


5 Comments so far

  1. Pharmacy technician test on May 2, 2010 9:27 PM

    What a great resource!

  2. Roman Nykyforuk on July 13, 2010 6:44 AM

    How does your fuel cell compare in efficiency with the one being offered by Plug Power?

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