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EAST AMWELL, N.J.—Mike Strizki has not paid an electric, oil or gas bill—nor has he spent a nickel to fill up his Mercury Sable—in nearly two years. Instead, the 51-year-old civil engineer makes all the fuel he needs using a system he built in the capacious garage of his home, which employs photovoltaic (PV) panels to turn sunlight into electricity that is harnessed in turn to extract hydrogen from tap water.
Although the device cost $500,000 to construct, and it is unlikely it will ever pay off financially (even with today's skyrocketing oil and gas prices), the civil engineer says it is priceless in terms of what it does buy: freedom from ever paying another heating or electric bill, not to mention keeping a lid on pollution, because water is its only by-product.
Slide Show: Photos show what makes this house work
"The ability to make your own fuel is priceless," says the man known as "Mr. Gadget" to his friends. He boasts a collection of hydrogen-powered and electric vehicles, including a hydrogen-run lawn mower and car (the Sable, which he redesigned and named the "Genesis") as well as an electric racing boat, and even an electric motorcycle. "All the technology is off-the-shelf. All I'm doing is putting them together."
"I'm a self-sufficiency guy," he adds. Strizki, a civil engineer, has been interested in alternative energy sources since 1997 when he began working on vehicles fueled by alternative means during his tenure with the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
Strizki's two-story colonial on an 11-acre (4.5 hectare) plot 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of Trenton is the nation's first private hydrogen-powered house, which he now shares with his wife, two dogs and a cat. (His two daughters and son, all in their 20s, have left the nest.) It has been running entirely on electricity generated from the sun and stored hydrogen since October 2006, when Strizki—in a project that his wife Ann fully supports—built an off-grid energy system with $100,000 of his own cash and $400,000 in grants from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, along with technology from companies such as Sharp, Swagelok and Proton Energy Systems.
The Strizki's personalized home-energy system consists of 56 solar panels on his garage roof, and housed inside is a small electrolyzer (a device, about the size of a washing machine, that uses electricity to break down water into its component hydrogen and oxygen). There are 100 batteries for nighttime power needs along the garage's inside wall; just outside are ten propane tanks (leftovers from the 1970s that are capable of storing 19,000 cubic feet, or 538 cubic meters, of hydrogen) as well as a Plug Power fuel cell stack (an electrochemical device that mixes hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water) and a hydrogen refueling kit for the car.
On a typical summer day, the solar panels drink in and convert sunlight to about 90 kilowatt-hours of electricity, according to Strizki. He consumes about 10 kilowatt-hours daily to run the family's appliances, including a 50-inch plasma television, along with his three computers and stereo equipment, among other modern conveniences.
The remaining 80 kilowatt-hours recharge the batteries—which provide electricity for the house at night—and power the electrolyzer, which splits the molecules of purified tap water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is vented and the hydrogen goes into the tanks where it is stored for use in the cold, dark winter months. From November to March or so Strizki runs the stored hydrogen through the fuel cell stacks outside his garage or in his car to power his entire house—and the only waste product is water, which can be pumped right back into the system.
"I can make fuel out of sunlight and water—and I don't even use the water," he notes. "If it's raining, it's fuel. If it's sunny, it's fuel. It's all fuel."
The modular home—built in 1991—looks like a typical suburban house; its top-of-the-line insulation and energy-efficient windows look no different, and the facade hides the hydrogen-powered clothes dryer and geothermal system for heating and cooling, which pumps Freon gas underground to harvest heat in winter and cool in summer.
"Geothermal is another piece of free energy," Strizki says, noting that he dug eight feet (2.4 meters) down into the granite under his home to take advantage of the constant 56-degree Fahrenheit (13-degree Celsius) temperature underground. In summer he can use the lower temperatures underground to cool his entire house, and in winter he can capture those warmer temperatures, supplementing them with a heat pump powered by electricity from hydrogen. "Nothing goes to waste."
This year, Strizki is hardly running his $78,000 Hogen electrolyzer (manufactured by Proton Energy Systems in Connecticut, a company that makes hydrogen-generation equipment) because last year's mild winter left him with full tanks. When he does turn it on, the excess hydrogen vents from a small pipe on the roof with the sound of an impolite burp.
That vented hydrogen speeds at 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour through the atmosphere on its way off the planet—one of only two gases, the other being helium, that escapes into space entirely because it is lighter than air. In fact, Strizki's quarter-inch thick propane tanks weigh less when filled with hydrogen than when depleted.
Of course, hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, but its quick escape eases Strizki's fears that it might ignite or explode. It "disperses faster than any other gas," he notes. "Hydrogen won't sit around waiting for a flame."
The final piece of Strizki's energy solution is dubbed "Genesis," his $3-million aluminum Mercury Sable, one of 10 that carmaker Ford produced in the 1990s to test how well the lighter metal would fare in crash tests. Ford gave Strizki the special model to drive in the Tour de Sol solar car race in New Jersey in 2000. Strizki installed a 104-horsepower electric engine (compared with a Toyota Prius's 44-horsepower motor) that can reach speeds of 140 miles (225 kilometers) per hour. Pop the hood and next to the electric engine sit two fuel cell stacks that convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity, propelling the electric engine forward smoothly and quickly.
The car never competed because it was not ready in time, but the unique vehicle does hold the world record for farthest travel on a single charge: 401.5 miles (646.2 kilometers), a distance which Strizki drove in December 2001. Today, Genesis shares the road with a variety of less costly fuel cell cars: Honda's new hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, which hit the market this week leasing for $600 a month, as well as the hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinox test-vehicle fleet from General Motors—part of a pilot program that aims to determine how hydrogen cars might function in everyday life. Both the Japanese and U.S. automakers are betting that these nonpolluting cars will one day replace the internal combustion engine.