Local Entrepreneur Develops Clean Alternative to Oil
By Ann Craig-Cinnamon
Photos by John Cinnamon
What began as an accident in a lab at Purdue University in 2005, could be fueling municipal vehicles all over the country in the near future. At least that is one of the goals of Kurt Koehler, a serial entrepreneur, who is the founder and president of AlGalCo (Aluminum Gallium Company).
Koehler says a Purdue scientist was experimenting with unleashing energy from aluminum and in the process made hydrogen. That experiment also caused a spark and flame that blew up part of his lab. For those of us without a science background, in essence what he discovered was how to create hydrogen on demand. But he didn’t realize the potential applications such a discovery might have.
Koehler, who has a degree from IU in business, not science, saw the potential and has spent more than a decade perfecting the hydrogen on demand model and delivery method in order to fuel engines with hydrogen.
“The problem with hydrogen has always been its seed stock; where it comes from. Hydrogen is everywhere. It’s the most abundant element in the universe, but it’s usually attached to something else. We solved that problem because we used water and aluminum to get the hydrogen out of the water,” says Koehler, explaining that the aluminum splits the water molecule H2O, thus making hydrogen.
His first application was to direct the hydrogen into pick-up truck engines which meant he needed to develop a way of harnessing the newly created fuel. Koehler is now on his fifth prototype of a delivery system for the hydrogen, with each getting smaller and simpler. The system sits on the back of the truck with 150 grams of aluminum alloy inside in a container. Another container holds water. When the vehicle is started the water drips on the aluminum alloy which makes hydrogen on demand. The hydrogen is then sent directly into the intake manifold through a hose.
“So when you get the hydrogen molecule you feed it into the engine right into the air intake manifold. It powers any vehicle; any internal combustion engine, and when it does you get no emissions from the burning of the hydrogen and it goes back out as water again,” he says adding that the hydrogen can be used to fuel an engine in part or in whole without any engine modification required.
“It’s like a propane exchange tank. So once the alloy is all used, which is every 250 miles, you take the old spent container out and put the new one in. It takes about 45 seconds,” says Koehler of his 5.0 system.
Hydrogen is about as “green” as it gets too. Koehler says it is 100% clean because there are no emissions created by burning hydrogen. The alloy being used is 90% common aluminum, like is used in a beverage can, and can be recycled an indefinite number of times. The recycling requires electricity but Koehler says you can use wind power for that and he points out that there are 1200 windmills between Purdue and Chicago that are using only a small percentage of their capacity.
Testing in Carmel
So the next step was getting a partner that would put his new fuel to work and allow him to test and improve his delivery system. Koehler says the city of Carmel stepped up when no one else wanted to be first. The Carmel Street Department has been using the hydrogen model in one of its trucks for the past seven years, after Koehler approached Mayor James Brainard, who personally approved the beta testing.
Carmel Street Commissioner Dave Huffman says it seemed logical that with their large fleet of trucks they would have one that would fit Koehler’s needs.
“It’s been exciting watching the changes in the system over the years as it gets smaller and smaller with each new system that he makes. It’s on demand so it’s not like we drive around with a tank full of hydrogen. It only makes it when the engine calls for it. And there’s no power drop off. We are able to plow snow. You really don’t know the difference when you’re running it and you’re not running it,” says Huffman who adds that the city has experimented with other alternative fuels and this by far is the easiest.
Huffman also says that the system is as simple as you can get and he could see using only hydrogen sometime in the future with the green initiative catching on as it has. The city of Carmel has ordered five new systems from Koehler and plans to equip four additional trucks in the near future.
Koehler says his latest model, 5.0, is just about ready to go to market. His plans are to expand his presence in Hamilton County first, with the City of Fishers next on his list. He has had discussions with UPS and FedEx in Hamilton County as well. He is also working on a diesel version with Purdue University in Indianapolis and over-the-road trucks are on his radar for the future too.
Don’t be looking for an AlGalCo station to fill up your car though. During a meeting a few years ago in Silicon Valley with representatives of a major oil company, he says he was actually warned to stay out of the consumer market. “They wanted me to understand my place in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” jokes Koehler, who adds that once his system starts making money a major oil company could get involved.
Koehler is excited about the future. “I don’t have to build a new infrastructure, I don’t have to build recharging stations, I don’t need any of that. All of the infrastructure is already there, already in place and it’s underused. That’s why we are so excited about this. I don’t need millions of dollars, I just need a little money to keep going and then purchase orders and money to scale it up.”