Volume 31 Number 1
Andrew Hsu, left, and Eric Nordgulen stand next to fuel cells in the Sculpture and Ceramics Building on the IUPUI campus. The cells are the foundation of a fuel cell system/sculpture that Hsu and Nordgulen are creating.
Photo by Rocky Rothrock
Have you ever seen a regenerative hydrogen fuel cell in action? If your answer is "Never," you’re hardly alone. Andrew Hsu and Eric Nordgulen believe that’s one reason progress toward renewable energy is so slow in the United States. They’ve got a plan to familiarize people with this emerging technology, and it draws as much inspiration from Rodin and Michelangelo as from Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin.
Hydrogen production is a pollution-free means of generating energy powered primarily through sunlight and water. In engineer Andrew Hsu’s design, solar panels capture the sun’s energy to create hydrogen gas, and at night the gas converts back to water through a hydrogen fuel cell, producing electricity. But because the public has so little exposure to this technology, he argues, people are unlikely to clamor for its research and development.
Hsu, a professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and Nordgulen, a sculptor and professor in the Herron School of Art at IUPUI, have an idea for how to spread the word that is every bit as innovative as the technology itself. Rather than publishing a research paper or speaking at a conference, they are going straight to the masses with a communication tool rarely seen in Hsu’s field of computational fluid dynamics: public art.
With Nordgulen’s help, Hsu’s fuel-cell technology will become a public sculpture in Indianapolis, demonstrating to passersby how this self-sustaining system has the potential to revolutionize the energy economy.
Science Seeks Beauty
The scientist and the artist came together after Hsu sent a request to the dean of the Herron School of Fine Arts asking for help securing a collaborator. Hsu’s goal was to find a way to beautify the fuel-cell technology he had been developing, as he suspected that a more attractive system would be more likely to catch on.
He explains that his inspiration came from visiting different sites that implemented renewable energy technology and being struck by the unappealing design of these systems.
"I went to Palm Springs, Calif., and visited their wind farm. I thought it was a disturbance to nature," he recalls. "That got me thinking that renewable energy has got to be more aesthetically pleasing."
Similarly, he noted a sharp contrast in his own reaction to systems that were implemented haphazardly versus those that showed evidence of artistic intent. In Germany, for example, he says, "You can see how some places just slap solar panels on the roof, and others integrate them into the design of the building, which is much more appealing."
Hsu had been working for some years on a renewable energy system that would use hydrogen electrolyzers to harness solar energy to be stored for later use. When he came across a request for proposals from IU’s New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant program (administered by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research) that called for projects linking art and technology, he knew it was time for his fuel cells to get a makeover.
Brave New Medium
Nordgulen was already accustomed to using modern and mechanical materials in his sculpture; one of his prime interests, he says, is demonstrating the ways in which technology can benefit human beings and the planet.
"For a long time, my work has tried to address relationships between industrial products, objects or attitudes, and nature. Industry and technology are often seen as being at odds with nature, but I like to put things together to suggest a relationship between two that may not be at odds," he says.
Hsu’s project appealed to Nordgulen not only for the opportunity to showcase the ways in which the technology could contribute to planetary well-being, but also because it fit well with how he sees the role of sculpture--as a harbinger of change.
"When you think about sculpture, it has always been impacted by technology, much more directly than, say, painting has. When you think about the history of art, there were stone sculptures, then bronze sculptures, then ceramic sculptures," he explains. "At the turn of the century with the industrial revolution, suddenly artists had available to them sheet metal, iron, and electricity. Video and digital technology is very apparent when you’re looking at contemporary sculpture. New ideas are often quite quickly absorbed through the sculptural medium. Sculptors are like the canary in the coal mine—we show evidence of what’s happening."
To get a better feel for the technology involved, Nordgulen traveled with Hsu to NASA, where Hsu once worked and still maintains a number of contacts. They visited the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and examined some of the regenerative fuel-cell systems that had originally inspired Hsu. ("The systems they had there were like $5 million apiece," he recalls. "I thought, What if you could use the same technology but produce it more cheaply?")
Nordgulen found the research center unexpectedly appealing. "I thought the laboratory space we visited was very beautiful to look at; I liked that aesthetic," he says. The prospect of working with such cutting-edge materials also drew him in.
"As an artist, I tend to look for new things, things that I haven’t dealt with before," he says. "To look at something that is very fresh and different is a way of keeping myself alert."
Public Art as Power Prototype
Hsu and Nordgulen successfully obtained a New Frontiers grant, so they set about designing a structure that would achieve two purposes: introduce the public to fuel-cell technology and obtain data to determine how much energy could be generated through such a system. If they could find a way to keep the fuel cells running smoothly and efficiently under real-world conditions, they reasoned, the next step would be to implement the technology in some type of community environment.
The sculpture, scheduled to be completed this fall, will utilize some 144 square feet of solar panels, a 12-cell electrolyzer, a "double bubbler" to humidify the hydrogen gas, and a fuel cell for energy conversion (from hydrogen to electricity). The system will power a "load" that uses electricity, such as a television or a series of lights.
During the day, the sculpture will bubble and hiss as water passes through the electrolyzer on its way to becoming hydrogen gas. At night, electricity generated by the gas will enable the load to come on, drawing further attention to the structure. Explanatory signage will inform viewers about the technology and its purpose.
Throughout its display, Hsu will collect data on the sculpture’s power output and troubleshoot to keep the system running. Determining how to keep the system from freezing, for example, is one of his primary goals.
"We would like to solve the techno-social issues: How do you make something like this work? And we also plan to collect data: How much energy can you produce in central Indiana? What is the cost per kilowatt if we operate this for 20 years?" Hsu says.
The team has discussed the possibility, for example, of powering the lights for a dozen units of a community dwelling at some point in the near future.
The sculpture may be exhibited in several locations over time, but the prospect that most excites Nordgulen is positioning it somewhere between IUPUI’s engineering and art schools along Indianapolis’s developing Cultural Trail. The trail, a bike and pedestrian path that connects major neighborhoods and cultural destinations throughout the city, will run through parts of the IUPUI campus, offering a chance to highlight different aspects of the university’s activities.
Public art will be a major feature along the trail. Nordgulen explains that one of the benefits of displaying art in public spaces is that it enables a fresh perspective on not only the art, but also the context that surrounds the art. He hopes that by placing the sculpture near the two schools, people will experience new curiosity about what goes on in these two sectors of campus.
Art is uniquely able to inspire our interest, he says, because we’re driven to understand it. "When a person walks into the engineering school, they understand that engineers know things and have studied things that would take them years of study to understand. But everyone expects to be able to understand art. That makes art much more immediate in terms of being able to generate a conversation. There isn’t an inhibitor. Everybody wants to know what it means and how it works."
Public art, as opposed to art that is contained within a museum or a private collection, has even more potential to draw people into its subject matter--and it’s gaining local momentum, Nordgulen says.
"The United States is just coming into its own with integrating art into everyone’s life so it’s something that people see on their way to work or to pick up the kids, etc.," he says. "Very recently, we find communities and the mayor looking for ways to integrate art. It provides culture and sense of identity. Public art is now everybody’s art."
With high gas prices, Nordgulen feels confident that the topic of alternative energy will capture many people’s interest. But he hopes that the fuel-cell sculpture will not so much provide solutions as generate questions about potential responses to the energy crisis.
"One of the things art does best is help people ask questions. Here the idea may be to provide the public with some information and to provide an object and activity that it represents, but people then have to think about what they think about these issues. To me, that is the ideal situation that art can create: The questions it generates are as important, or more important, than the information," he says.
Fuel Cell Future
Hsu readily admits that the technology exhibited in the sculpture is still in its infancy. Although it has been demonstrated to be both effective and "clean" in terms of sparing the environment from harmful emissions, the present drawback to hydrogen production is its considerable cost.
"Right now it’s not cost-competitive," Hsu says. "Electricity costs 6.2 cents per kilowatt on the grid, but if you calculate the cost of installing something like our system, it’s more like 30 or 50 cents per kilowatt."
Furthermore, those figures represent an average over a period of about 30 years, the likely lifespan of the solar panels. Installing and running the system for just a few years would cost the user dollars per kilowatt. But Hsu believes the cost ratio between fossil fuel and solar power is likely to reverse itself in the future.
"Eventually, your energy costs for fossil fuels are going to go up and the production costs for solar panels will go down," he says. "I think there’s no question in anyone’s mind that one day fossil fuels are going to run out, and when they do these technologies will be needed on a daily basis."
With respect to the sculpture, its major components have cost around $10,000, but it is expected to generate only about 1,000 watts per hour--just enough to power 10 100-watt light bulbs.
"Certainly the sculpture is not expected to make economic sense at this point," Hsu admits, pointing out that its hourly output is worth only about six cents on the grid. But, as Nordgulen argues, cost is not the only factor in the demand for renewable energy.
"People are starting to want to participate, to become active in doing something about these issues," he says. He makes the comparison to recycling--it’s less convenient than throwing everything in the trash, but it provides a meaningful experience for many people.
Hsu agrees that the time is right to introduce new energy concepts. Waiting much longer, he says, could be catastrophic. "When peak oil happens without warning, it’s going to be a disaster," he says. He describes the current gas-price increase as "a blessing in disguise," because it has the potential to motivate people to seek renewable energy sources before the country reaches a crisis point.
Fuel cells like the ones in the Nordgulen-Hsu sculpture will have a very important role to play in a new, cleaner energy economy, Hsu says. "I think the time for this type of technology is very close," he says. "Within 10 years, I think you are going to see this type of technology being used in many different communities."
There is some evidence that Hsu and Nordgulen can, in fact, spread the new technology simply by introducing people to it: Michael Reed, a graduate engineering student who has been assisting with the sculpture, says working with these materials has motivated him to integrate renewable energy into his life.
"Now that I’ve dealt with solar panels," he says, "I’m going to put some on my house."
Elisabeth Andrews is a freelance writer in Bloomington.