UW-Madison, Beloit partnership produces water-run scooter

December 8, 2009 By Sandra Knisely

At first glance, a 50-cc Vespa scooter and a squad car may not appear to have much in common.

However, a class of University of Wisconsin–Madison freshman engineering students and officials from Beloit, Wis., are making progress toward technologies that eventually could run a variety of vehicles on nothing but water.

The class, with the help of UW–Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Anderson and Beloit public works fleet manager Dan Lutz, has demonstrated a new hydrogen-assisted system that runs a Vespa on a hydrogen-gasoline fuel mix.

The students have been able to run the Vespa entirely on hydrogen both at idling and high-throttle speeds. Hydrogen also creates more complete engine combustion, meaning the scooter produces fewer emissions than factory Vespas.

Anderson’s freshman engineering class last spring developed a wet-cell system that ran water through a container called an electrolyzer, which contained fuel cells to split water via electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen. The fuel cells, powered by the scooter’s alternator, funneled the hydrogen directly to the engine via a stainless steel tube.

This year, the class altered the system to be a dry-cell system. Unlike a wet-cell design, which submerges the electrical components in water, the dry-cell system keeps the electrical connections above water. This combined with Lutz’s unique designs have created an efficient system that powers the scooter with hydrogen and oxygen, which are produced on demand in the fuel cell.

“It’s exciting to be working with hydrogen-based technologies, and I really want to see this go further,” says Lutz. “We’ve got a long way to go, but by running a Vespa entirely on hydrogen, we’ve proved it can be done.”

The students plan to fine tune and improve the system, which Lutz hopes to implement in a variety of Beloit vehicles, including squad cars and city pick-up trucks.

Beloit public works has been testing hydrogen-based systems in city fleet vehicles since the spring of 2008. Lutz, who oversees the more than 300-vehicle fleet, has worked to meet the city’s sustainability goals by testing hydrogen-on-demand systems to save fuel and help the environment.

Through various public works and UW–Madison contacts, Lutz was put in touch with Anderson, who leads a section of InterEngineering 160, Introduction to Engineering, that teaches students how to design, build and implement hydrogen-based systems in a Vespa.

During the fall 2009 semester, Lutz traveled to Madison every Wednesday evening to help teach the students about hydrogen-based technologies. The students tested an improved fuel cell design and coated the fuel cell plating with a proprietary surface coating developed by Anderson that improves performance and efficiency. A U.S. patent on this coating is pending through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Future classes may be able to run the scooter entirely on water by using the battery to start the electrolyzer. Anderson also anticipates students will work on a system that works with tap water. The current system uses distilled water with some sodium hydroxide added.

The partnership between UW–Madison and Beloit public works has been mutually beneficial. Lutz has been able to leverage university resources, including laboratories and faculty expertise, to advance hydrogen technologies and eventually enable suppliers to build systems for him to implement in the Beloit fleet vehicles.

The engineering students have substantially benefited from Lutz’s presence on campus. “Dan and his colleagues have been teaching the students many, many things about a variety of practical engineering skills,” says Anderson.

The students have taken full advantage of their opportunity to learn from Anderson and Lutz. “We canceled class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and several students still came into the lab because they didn’t want to miss a week,” says Lutz.