With more than 30 middle school and high school students on the University of Missouri-Rolla campus this week for the first-ever Hy-Tech Camps, one of the things they’re learning about is General Motor’s new AUTOnomy "skateboard" chassis, which is powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology.
No, it’s not something that skateboarding legend Tony Hawk will use at future X Games. It’s a 6-inch thick, 14.5-by-6-foot board with four 16-inch tires that houses everything from the vehicle’s powertrain to fuel supply to steering. The vehicle’s body is interchangeable, so the "skateboard" can transform from a sedan into a roadster or truck just by placing a different body on top of it.
The skateboard is just one of the things that campers will learn about through GM’s educational website, www.gmability.com/education, which was created to educate children, their parents and their teachers about environmental, energy and technology issues.
"The idea is to teach the kids at these camps about engineering by giving them a broad base of subjects, and to make it a fun and educational camp," says Dr. John Sheffield, camp director and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UMR. "We’re using several resources, but the backbone of the whole thing is built around GM’s fuel cell curriculum. This curriculum was launched in 2002 and has reached nearly 3.5 million middle school students."
The Hy-Tech Camps, which began June 14 and run through Friday, June 18, are centered around hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. From watching computer-based simulations to seeing UMR’s 2003 American Solar Challenge champion car to building model cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, campers will get a first-hand look at the future of renewable energy.
"The students will build a solar race car and a hydrogen fuel cell working car," Sheffield says. "They’ll measure the efficiency of the fuel cell how much storage there is. They’ll also modify a small solar car and stick it in the wind tunnel, measure the drag on it and do a smoke test. Then they’ll fill it in with clay or putty to see if they can reduce the drag."
Although discussions will focus a lot on transportation applications, students will also learn about other ways hydrogen fuel cell technology can be used.
"The fuel cell is something we see right today," Sheffield says. "Toshiba has a laptop with a micro-fuel cell instead of a battery and Sony has a cell phone that uses a micro-fuel cell. You get much longer life with those energy storage systems that you would with a traditional battery. And instead of having to dispose of hazardous waste batteries, now we recharge them with something that’s making water as a byproduct."
The U.S. Department of Energy has recognized the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology and wants to facilitate commercialization of the technology, Sheffield says.
"The United States has often had technology available that we haven’t accepted and other countries have," Sheffield explains. "That’s happening now with fuel cells."
But Sheffield hasn’t let the new technology slip by UMR students. In April, UMR’s Hydrogen Fueling Station Team placed in the top five in the first University Student Hydrogen Design Contest: Hydrogen Fueling Station.
"Dr. Sheffield is the right person from our department to lead this effort on campus because of his long association with energy issues and involvement with the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy," says Dr. Ashok Midha, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at UMR. "We’re very happy to be doing this in our outreach activities. It’s a topical area, with federal support."