President George Bush’s plans to pump more federal funding into the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles, as outlined in his State of the Union Address Tuesday, is good news for researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla, who are working to develop cheaper, more efficient fuel cells similar to those that may one day replace the internal combustion engine.
Supported in part by a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the researchers are in the middle of a three-year project to develop solid oxide fuel cells — a technology that holds promise as a clean, alternative energy source for use in aircraft and electrical power.
While research into solid oxide fuel cells is not as far along as research into polymer electrolyte fuel cells, the type commonly associated with hydrogen-powered cars, the solid oxide cells could prove more useful in the long run because they can burn a variety of fuels, not just hydrogen, says Dr. Harlan Anderson, Curators’ Professor emeritus of ceramic engineering and director of UMR’s Electronic Materials Applied Research Laboratory (EMARC).
In his 2003 State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, Bush unveiled a plan to provide $1.2 billion in research funding for "developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles" that would run on fuel cells.
"With a new national commitment," Bush said, "our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."
UMR researchers are already on the road to developing clean-burning fuel cells. Through a three-year project that began Oct. 1, 2001, UMR engineers are leading a project that could make fuel cells an economical power source by the end of this decade.
The research involves the fabrication and testing of solid oxide fuel cells, with the ultimate goal of developing a cell capable of producing 5 kilowatts of electricity — enough to power an average house.
Fuel cells function much like conventional batteries. Unlike batteries, however, they do not run down or require recharging. They also are efficient at creating electricity and are cleaner sources of energy than coal-fueled steam generator systems, which are currently the primary source of electric power. Fuel cells consist of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte, or membrane. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.
The goal for UMR researchers is to create a fuel cell that operates at a cool 750 degrees Celsius (1,382 degrees Fahrenheit) or below. One major drawback to current fuel cell technology is that it requires extremely high temperatures, as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), to operate efficiently. But the UMR-led consortium is attempting to build a cell that not only functions at cooler temperatures, but also is less costly to build.
"The reason fuel cells have not entered into the marketplace is because of the costs involved," says Anderson. "The end result of this project will be a demonstration of the technology," says Anderson, who is leading the research effort.
The three-year project is a $3.5 million effort in all, with the $2.8 million federal grant matched by $700,000 in funds from UMR, EMARC and two of the consortium members, Akers Industries Inc. of Oakland, Calif., and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Working with UMR, UC-Boulder and Akers on the project is the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energies Laboratory in Golden, Colo., and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.
Automobile manufacturers are already in the process of developing vehicles that are powered by fuel cells, Anderson explains. In the future, some vehicles may use fuel cells as part of a "hybrid" system, combined with traditional gas engines.
"The automobiles are using more electricity than they ever have, and it would be nice to have an additional power supply," Anderson says.
In addition, the Energy Department is interested in developing a stand-alone power generator for the trucking industry that would be more efficient than the typical diesel engine, he says.
In the UMR project, Anderson and his team on campus are managing the overall effort as well as characterizing and selecting the materials to be used in construction of the fuel cell. Working with Anderson are Dr. Vladimir Petrovsky, a UMR research professor working with EMARC; Dr. Richard Brow, professor and chair of ceramic engineering at UMR; and EMARC post-doctoral fellows Dr. Xiao-Dong Zhou, Dr. Piotr Jasinski and Dr. Toshio Suzuki. Some UMR graduate students also are involved in the project. Akers Industries is fabricating the fuel cells, while the National Renewable Energies Laboratory and the University of Colorado-Boulder are developing the membrane technology for the cells. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, meanwhile, is developing the interconnection for the fuel cells. UMR researchers are testing the cells and reporting the results to the Energy Department.