PHOENIX — On the side of Scottsdale's Troon Mountain, an experiment is about to begin.
Engineer and inventor Bryan Beaulieu is creating a $2 million home that will run on hydrogen.
He will live with his wife and sons off the grid, harnessing solar energy instead of burning fossil fuels.
Beaulieu hopes his new home, where he has been living since April 1, is the answer to a question he asked himself five years ago: "Can we live in the desert without sucking energy out of the rest of the world?"
One of only two hydrogen houses anywhere — the other is in Malaysia — Beaulieu's is made up of a courtyard surrounded by five hexagonal living pods, the shape borrowed from a hogan, or traditional Navajo house.
Beaulieu is hustling to get it livable so that his wife, Yvette, and sons, Cameron, 12, and Carter, 7, could join him.
Yvette's sensitivity to chemicals, dust and fumes was the initial seed for the project.
Chapter from nature
"Bryan has set up a way to make his family more healthy, by using the same thing green plants use as the energy carrier of what goes into his home," said Roy McAlister of the American Hydrogen Association in Mesa.
Green plants use energy from the sun to break water into hydrogen and oxygen, retaining the hydrogen to make plant tissue that becomes "the tomatoes, the strawberries, the roses, what have you," McAlister said.
Similarly, Beaulieu's home will trap sunlight in solar panels and convert it to electricity. That electricity will run a washing machine-size appliance called an electrolyzer, which separates water into hydrogen and oxygen.
The hydrogen will be trapped in high-pressure tanks and run through an electric generator, producing a clean electricity that keeps lights, computers, ceiling fans — whatever the family needs — humming.
"It works just like you use natural gas," said Beaulieu, 55, "but with no pollution."
The solar panels will soak up tens of thousands of watts of energy during the day and store it for evening, when the family needs more power.
"He's using a type of environmental management of radiation from outer space to heat in winter and cool in the summer," McAlister said. "He's converting what would have cost society a lot in terms of garbage and sewage into resources greatly needed."
Like any volatile fuel, including gasoline in cars and home heating oil, hydrogen can be explosive if not stored properly. Yet by design, Beaulieu's home will not produce harmful greenhouse gases.
'Disneyland and NASA'
Anthony Floyd, who runs Scottsdale's Green Building Program, hopes that the house will be an example of the benefits of using mass materials such as concrete, clay and adobe in hot, dry climates.
"The majority of houses being built in Scottsdale are about drama," Floyd said. "People want towers and entryways with Tuscan features."
Rather than import Italian marble and install gold-plated fixtures, Beaulieu used materials native to the desert and strove for resource efficiency, durability and longevity, Floyd said.
The floors of Beaulieu's pods are limestone. The walls and ceiling are built from cinderblock and clay. There are no chemicals or glues anywhere, which means no paint, no particleboard, no carpeting and no drywall. The steel on the outside is treated with linseed oil, and the solid walnut cabinets in the kitchen with vinegar and steel wool.
"In a way, this house is a big exhibit," said Beaulieu, who once owned a manufacturing company that made displays for trade shows. "It's Disneyland and NASA."
It also is an experiment, one that requires its inhabitants to understand the environment that makes it work.
"What Bryan is doing is a risk, a test," Floyd said. "The whole world is going to learn from this house and how it performs."
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