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With an air of nobility, a dose of hustle, and a boundless desire to save the world from air pollution, Robin Zachary Parker sits down to an elegant lunch at Mezzanotte in Coconut Grove. The tall, blue-eyed, 54-year-old Parker has stopped extolling the insalata frutti di mare and is now raving about the venturi effect (named after Italian physicist Giovanni Venturi). On a little square of paper he sketches a rectangle with a shape resembling an arrow-topped bottle inside. Owing to the laws of physics, he explains, if you create a large opening in one end of your house and a smaller one in the other, air will rush from the big hole to the little one. The phenomenon will help ventilate a very narrow home he designed and is building on half a lot in the north Grove. “It's real simple,” he says, even though it is not. Then he quickly moves on to explain his greatest passion this side of romance: an extremely complicated invention that couples energy storage with hydrogen production that he has spent the better part of two decades trying to develop. He is convinced it will help end the scourge of fossil fuels and therefore will be worth billions of dollars one day.
An architect by training, Parker has been orchestrating this still-nascent energy-storage revolution since 1984, the year he became president of Solar Reactor Technologies, a tiny firm that stumbled on a way to capture the sun's radiation using a compound called hydrogen chlorine (HCl). Since then SRT has been on a long, strange trip, fueled with funding from federal agencies interested in learning whether the technology could be used for power plants on Earth and missile systems in space. With each laboratory test, Parker's notion is looking less farfetched.
The contraption functions like a renewable battery, but it's the size of large room, filled with tanks, pumps, and power sources. Although the concept has remained basically the same for more than a decade, several years ago the company (which changed its name to SRT Group in 1996) switched from HCl to a similar, but less explosive compound, hydrogen bromine (HBr). “There is no other technology available that links electricity and hydrogen like SRT's,” boasts Parker. “It's just so natural. Electrical energy storage with hydrogen production.”
After lunch Parker walks two blocks to his office on the fourth floor of a brick building and excitedly continues the lesson. With a magic marker he scrawls a chemical formula on a white board that hangs above a long table littered with newspaper clippings: Br2 + H2O --> 2HBr + 1/2 O2. He adds a squiggly line that signifies an electrical current. “We're pulling hydrogen off a hydrogen carrier, such as natural gas or water,” he says. “What we're doing is we're making HBr.” Simply put, the current causes the HBr to split into H2 and Br, and the electricity is stored as chemical energy. Recombine the hydrogen and bromine into HBr and out comes the electricity.
SRT's batterylike invention has so many applications it sounds too good to be true. It would enable electric companies to avoid power shortages, which are becoming more common as demand increases, especially during summer months in the Sunbelt. Hooked up to coal plant smokestacks, Parker states, it could remove sulfur dioxide, one of the worst air pollutants. More important it can store wind and solar energy. And it can efficiently produce hydrogen. If you've been reading the papers, Parker notes, you would know this gas is the clean automobile fuel of the future. SRT owns 40 patents that cover various components of the device.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is so enthusiastic about the process it has provided money to keep work chugging along at SRT's labs at the University of Florida and Linden, Virginia, for the past seven years. Starting two years ago, power companies in England and Arizona contributed matching funds. This past July public officials in Wyoming joined the list of financial backers. But here in the Sunshine State interest has been as bright as a brownout. For years Florida Power and Light has shunned Parker's entreaties. The rejection has created an emotional venturi effect in the Parker clan because one of SRT's founders, Dennis Coyle, is now a senior executive at FPL. He's also Robin Parker's brother-in-law.
It is uncertain whether SRT's creation will ever become commercially available. Last year the DOE approved nearly eight million dollars in matching funds to build demonstration units in the field. “We have come to the conclusion that the technology will work,” confirms Neil Rossmeissl, manager of DOE's hydrogen program. “The problem isn't the technology. The problem is that you need to be able to provide the funding to commercialize it.”
Over the past year Parker has taken his energy-storage show to executives from major automobile and oil companies including Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, and Texaco. In June he flew to Washington to present SRT's discoveries to representatives of Hitachi. With about six million dollars of his family's and several investors' money now on the line, he hopes to hear back soon but is prepared for a long delay. “What the DOE says is we're just going to limp along until we get a strategic partner,” Parker explains. “We're waiting for Godot.”