DTI Energy Doing Hard Sell on Environment-Friendly Fuel Cells

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Todd Marsh, president and chief executive of DTI Energy Inc., is not given to understatement, at least not when it comes to his company's pollution-free energy technology.

"The direct-methanol fuel cell is as revolutionary [to the energy industry] as DOS was to the personal computer industry," Marsh proclaims. "It will be at the core of a broad range of energy uses."

Developed jointly by USC and Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, direct-methanol fuel cells convert methanol into electricity without pollution. Marsh holds a license to commercialize the technology.

Fuel cells have long been touted as a potential source of power for everything from zero-emission vehicles to lawn mowers, and they're already being used as emergency power sources in some Southland hospitals.

But most fuel cells so far have been driven by hydrogen, a volatile gas that is difficult to store and transport. Methanol is inexpensive, easy to manufacture and safe to deliver and store. The direct-methanol fuel cell operates at about 194 degrees Fahrenheit, or about as hot as a car radiator.

So far, DTI Energy and JPL have built units that provide just 50 watts of power, but they have developed prototypes that deliver five times that much.

"The fascinating thing is that it is scalable in both directions--small and large," Marsh says. He envisions the fuel cells as replacements for everything from batteries in consumer electronics to stand-alone power sources for large facilities.

The next project, Marsh says, is to build a 5-kilowatt system to help power a light-duty parking enforcement vehicle.

But the 42-year-old entrepreneur has been jetting around the globe talking to everyone from major car makers to oil industry executives to government officials in the hope of sub-licensing the technology for a variety of uses.

"The demand is here," Marsh says.

Within the next year, Marsh hopes DTI will build a research and development facility in the Los Angeles area and grow from the current eight to about 16 employees. Marsh believes that by 2000, a major European car maker could be building prototype cars powered by the direct-methanol fuel cell.

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