How Louis Schatz and Peter Lehman Made Energy History
This article originally appeared in the 2004 Humboldt Stater magazine.
The Schatz Trust's bequest this year of an estimated $7.4 million is the largest single gift ever given to Humboldt State University. It brings the total contributed by Louis W. Schatz and his estate to approximately $15 million. Schatz died in 2001.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1912, Louis Schatz first studied forestry, and developed a selective logging technique during the Great Depression that piqued the interest of Franklin Roosevelt's Interior department. After earning a doctorate in chemical engineering, Schatz applied plastic techniques to develop coatings and preservatives for wood products, and founded the successful General Plastics Manufacturing Company.
In 1987, his first gift to HSU was land for the 385 acre Schatz Demonstration Tree Farm in Maple Creek, adjacent to the homestead of his son, Gordon. Part of the recent bequest will also be devoted to the tree farm, and to support the L.W. Schatz lecture series in forestry at HSU. But the bulk of the bequest will become an endowment for the Schatz Energy Research Center, which with his support since 1989, produced the first street-ready car in the U.S. to run on hydrogen fuel cells.
Fuel cells divide hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons to drive electric motors, emitting no pollutants. They store and convert energy but don't generate it, so when fueled by a renewable energy power source, hydrogen fuel cells can make a major contribution to a sustainable energy future.
How this technology came to be pioneered at HSU can been seen as the story of two men---Louis Schatz and Dr. Peter Lehman, director of the Schatz Energy Research Center and HSU professor of Environmental Resources Engineering. Together with co-director Dr. Charles Chamberlin, Dr. Lehman led the fuel cell team that proved the practicality of hydrogen energy.
Schatz and Lehman both had the same rare, revolutionary idea. One had the means but not the expertise; the other had the knowledge but not the resources. When they met, more than hydrogen got energized. One morning this summer, Peter Lehman recalled how it all happened.
For Schatz, as Lehman later learned, it began with a science project he helped one of his sons perform, which involved producing hydrogen and oxygen from water: separating the H2 from the O by means of an electrochemical cell. Years later, Schatz tried it again, this time using a solar panel for power. He collected the hydrogen in a balloon, and lit a match under it. "When that balloon went BOOM," he told Lehman, "I knew I was on to something."
"He came up with the idea himself to utilize hydrogen as an energy storage medium, as a way to move us towards a clean energy society," Lehman said. "He went looking around the world for a research center that would promulgate his ideas, but he didn't find one." Because Schatz already had a relationship with HSU through the tree farm, he called up an HSU vice president, who called Lehman, because he was teaching energy engineering. "He asked me if we had a hydrogen energy program." Even though HSU didn't, he'd asked the right person.
"I'd been telling my students that as we progress towards renewable energy, we'll need a storage medium, and I think it will be hydrogen," Lehman recalled. So he wrote Schatz a proposal to start a research program at HSU. "As soon as I sat down that night, I knew exactly what to write. I'd been thinking about it so long, I had the whole thing worked out in six hours."
"Two days later, the phone rang---it was Mr. Schatz. He didn't say hello, how are you, he just started peppering me with questions about the proposal. I liked him right off the bat---he was straightforward, no-nonsense."
But that he seemed genuinely interested in funding such a high-risk project started to seem unreal. "So I said, 'I hope you don't mind me asking, but why are you doing this?' Mr. Schatz said, 'Well, I made some money in my life, my children are all taken care of, and I want to do some good in the world.' "
"That's a good answer," Lehman replied. "Can I revise my proposal?" Lehman sent his new proposal the next day, and a few days later a check for $75,000 arrived in his mailbox. It was the beginning of the Schatz Solar Hydrogen Project.
"It was also the beginning of a relationship," Lehman points out, for Schatz remained involved in the ongoing work. At one point, Lehman was frustrated because there were few companies capable of making fuel cells, and the one working on his team's design kept making mistakes. "When they screwed up the plastic molding, that was it for Mr. Schatz. He knew plastics. 'Get rid of those guys!' he told me. 'Build your own!'"
That led to another proposal, for a fuel cell lab. This time the check (for $300,000) came with a note: "Get to work." So in 1992, Lehman's team began refurbishing a sprawling, nearly derelict wooden building that had once been a small hospital, and the Schatz Energy Research Center was born. Two years later, they had their first hydrogen fuel cell, which today sits on a corner of Lehman's desk.
"We had an interesting and fruitful relationship," Lehman says. "I communicated with him probably once a week, on the phone or by letter---I've got 60 or 70 letters from him. I visited him." So naturally when the Center had its first public triumph---a fuel cell powered golf cart for the Palm Desert Parade in southern California---Louis Schatz got to drive.
Schatz also had the Mayor of Palm Desert in the cart. A nervous team from the Center accompanied them on foot, in case anything went wrong. But the golf cart performed well. "When we got to the end of the parade at City Park, we were just overjoyed. Everybody was hugging one another and congratulating each other, and all of a sudden I looked around and I said, 'Where's the vehicle? Where's the cart?' Mr. Schatz had taken off in it, with the Mayor. They'd become great friends during the parade. They were joy-riding in the park. Mr. Schatz was driving it as fast as it would go. When he finally came back he said, 'I wanted to see what she would do.'" (Top speed was about 18 mph.)
Their working relationship continued until Louis Schatz death in 2001. At the Schatz memorial service, Lehman said he had been like a second father to him. Lehman stays in touch with Louis Schatz's sons, Henry (who runs the Schatz business in Tacoma, and has a house in Trinidad) and Gordon ( "a Humboldt County kind of guy" who still lives in Maple Creek).
As Lehman ponders the future, with hopes for a new building when the Center's current home is abandoned at the expiration of its current lease, he expresses the same idealism that motivated Louis Schatz. " I'm proud to be here," he says, "to be part of an organization that cares about the world."
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