STENNIS SPACE CENTER — Wouldn’t it be cool if cars could run on hydrogen?
That’s the question Tommy Carroll asked Chris Spence last fall when the two University of Southern Mississippi graduate students were looking for a project for an academic competition. It not only seemed like a good project to enter into the university’s Golden Eagle Challenge for budding entrepreneurs, it made sense for a future business as the country seeks alternative fuels to lessen dependence on foreign oil.
Thus, Fusionetics was born.
The third member of the team, Van Ward, joined the effort as an academic project and the trio worked feverishly to develop the concept, build a prototype and polish their presentation for last month’s competition. All are working toward MBAs at the university’s Stennis Space Center campus in Hancock County.
They won second place and were encouraged to turn their viable idea into a technology-based company that will design, prototype and build conversion kits to convert gasoline powered automobiles to dual-fueled hydrogen or gasoline powered automobiles. Carroll and Spence are now working to organize and develop Fusionetics.
“I told my dad about the competition and he came up with this idea,” Carroll said. “He has no engineering background, but he likes to tinker. We figured out the conversion kit. Based on energy content, hydrogen gets about 60% more fuel economy than gasoline. It’s hard to measure because hydrogen isn’t measured in gallons. It burns more efficiently in internal combustion engines.”
Pulling the presentation together
Spence says preparing for the competition was sort of intimidating because they only had four months to pull the presentation together. “Tommy has the engineering background and had the idea in primitive form. He’s a very inquisitive person,” he said. “We wanted to make cars use flex fuel.”
A 26-year-old software engineer from Picayune, Spence says technology was the first hurdle and that the team had the same concerns as the judges, a fuel source.
“Over the past 20 years, technology has changed,” Spence said. “So our problem is getting enough fuel to make it feasible. Our solution is to go through someone who buys in bulk. We asked Stennis Space Center about it. They get hydrogen by the truckload and no one gets it cheaper than them.”
They’ve talked to the space center about a fixed price for the hydrogen. He added that the huge NASA test facility has a federal green mandate to switch its vehicles to an alternative fuel.
Also, on a national scale, there are companies that create hydrogen as a waste product. “We could say to them, ‘We’d be more than happy to buy your garbage from you’,” he said.
The pair is having meetings and conversations with NASA, as well as with potential investors. Some of those are local venture capitalists. Others are investors from China who heard about Fusionetics from a Chinese student who attended the USM competition.
And the average driver?
It’s that lack of a source for hydrogen that will hinder the average driver from having the conversion kit in the next few years, Carroll said. “That’s why we’re targeting NASA so we can establish it in that area and build up our knowledge,” he said. “It’s feasible for fleets of vehicles such as FedEx and UPS now.”
Down the road, he thinks there will be an additional push by the federal government for more alternative fuels, making it easier to go into the private sector with Fusionetics.
Automobile makers are looking at conversion kits, too. According to Carroll, BMW is targeting 2009 to put a kit in its series seven.
Would that put Fusionetics out of business? “We’re still a few years away from manufacturers putting kits in all cars.
The first ones will be the high-end cars,” Carroll answered. “We still need to do more research, but we estimate that when gas hits $2.16 per gallon, then it’s cheaper to run on hydrogen.”
Carroll says Spence has a good feel for the business side of things and he’s glad to have him as a partner. The duo plans to start with a lean approach. The name will remain the same.
It came from “fusion,” which means joining together, and “etics,” which means science or study of something.
The entrepreneurs must also investigate patents that may already exist while continuing to develop their prototype. They want to improve on the go cart prototype they had for the competition. Also, they are looking at renting hangar space at Stennis Airport for Fusionetics and will make their company an LLC.
“We definitely have a lot on our plate and have decisions to make,” Spence said. “We will try to be as realistic as possible. We don’t want to be overly ambitious. We’ll take our time and refine it.”
Before the competition, the team ran the prototype at the Poplarville Airport and was surprised at the results. “Our prototype, a go cart, got 80 miles per gallon,” Spence said. “We were not expecting that and thought we had miscalculated, so we ran it again.”
Carroll, 37, is an engineer with NASA and expects to get his MBA by the end of the summer. His goal is to go into the alternative fuel industry. “I’m completely immersed with hydrogen as that alternative fuel, but I may not use the plans from the competition,” he said. “I will break it down into small steps.”
He says gasoline prices and other energy issues may push the Fusionetics team into faster action. He feels they’re farther along with their concept than the competition judges realized.
“This is a new technology and the kits could be available in about a year and a half if things stay the status quo, although there could be a stronger push,” he said.
Spence added that they are interested in energy solutions for the country. “The first part of our presentation was about our energy problems and how we must solve them,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.