NEW ELLENTON - Laboratories at the Center for Hydrogen Research that were inactive when it opened a year ago now buzz with activity.
Scientists and engineers are searching for more efficient ways to store the powerful gas, hoping to unlock its potential to power tomorrow's automobiles and homes and ease the nation's energy needs.
Right now, most of them come from Savannah River National Laboratory and make up the government's half of the research center, a 60,000-square-foot complex believed to be the first of its kind to partner the public and private sector for hydrogen research.
Carmaker Toyota is the only private investor currently leasing space, but it's only a matter of time before another tenant signs on, said Fred Humes, the executive director of the center, which is owned by Aiken County.
"There are several proposals out there, and within the next 90 days we'll be hearing good news," he said Friday.
Inside the lab, researchers are looking into better ways to detect the colorless, odorless gas. It can't be mixed with sulfur, like natural gas, which is also odorless and colorless, because hydrogen is too light, lab scientists say.
Still, the lab's focus remains the effective storage of hydrogen. There are scientists at the research center dedicated specifically to mixing and matching metal hydrides, still believed to be one of the best options.
They experiment with different combinations by placing metal powders in a ball mill, a machine that spins the powders until they fuse. Current hydrogen tanks for automobiles are too heavy, providing a round trip of only 150 miles.
Carmakers are looking for a tank that can provide 300 miles of travel, similar to today's gasoline-powered vehicles.
"It's the harder nut to crack, but if you solve that problem you solve a lot of problems," said Ted Motyka, a manager at the research center.
The effort to harness hydrogen is a worldwide one, and researchers in Aiken are collaborating with their peers around the world. One group at the research center is working with people from Germany, Japan and Canada, among others, to address safety issues with hydrogen.
"We live in a global marketplace," said Don Anton, a technical consultant at the research center. "The technology that eventually wins will be used in all countries. The protocols sort of need to be the same."
Closer to home, Dr. Motyka is working on ways to market what the research center already has accomplished.
Stationary hydrogen storage units are one such accomplishment.
How much a backup power unit at a hospital or cell phone tower weighs doesn't matter, he says, and a study by Clemson University's Institute of Energy Studies, to be released later this month, will cite those two industries as businesses that can benefit from existing hydrogen technology.
"Hurricane Katrina drove home that large institutions like hospitals cannot rely strictly on diesel as a backup power source," said Nick Rigas, the director of the Clemson study.
The Center for Hydrogen Research plans to power part of the center with one of its own hydrogen units, a demonstration facility for promotional purposes, Dr. Motyka said.
The research center also is part of the South Carolina Hydrogen Fuel Cell Alliance, which includes Clemson, the University of South Carolina and South Carolina State University.
Mr. Humes cites separate experiences at hydrogen events last year to characterize the growing buzz around it in South Carolina.
At the National Hydrogen Association meeting, people told him they didn't know anything about the state's involvement.
But six months later, at a Department of Energy summit, the state was all the rage.
Officials recently announced that the 2009 National Hydrogen Association meeting will be held in Columbia.
"That is a massive change in perception," he said. "I think that we have a combination in South Carolina that makes us unique."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.