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UD Researchers Cross Discipline Lines to Collaborate on Fuel Cell Research

UD Researchers Cross Discipline Lines to Collaborate on Fuel Cell Research

Three University of Dayton researchers with diverse backgrounds, work experiences and educational interests are pooling their talents to tackle big problems. Together, they are working to reduce pollution, improve transportation and bolster international relations.

They're working on fuel cells.

Members of this ad hoc University of Dayton research team are Binod Kumar, senior research engineer in the metals and ceramics division of the University of Dayton Research Institute; Sarwan Sandhu, professor of chemical and materials engineering in the School of Engineering; and Gerald Keil, chemistry professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. They crossed discipline lines to come together to write and win two Ohio Board of Regents grants -- one for equipment and one for research, for a total of $140,000 -- for the fuel cells project.

In January, the president announced his support for a plan by the Energy Department and the U.S. auto industry to develop hydrogen-based fuel cells to replace the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine now used in the majority of cars. It's part of a worldwide trend to move away from generating electricity by means that exhaust natural resources and produce environmentally harmful by-products.

UD's researchers are looking to develop a better methanol-based fuel cell by improving the performance and lowering the cost of the proton-exchange membrane component.

They are coming at the problem from all angles. "I am a person who likes to make materials and analyze them and characterize them," said Kumar. "Jerry is a physical chemist, so he is interested in looking at the permeability of methanol through the membrane. Sarwan works on mathematical equations and modeling of how the proton is moving through the membrane, to gauge how fast it moves and to make it faster."

Fuel cells work by combining two gases -- hydrogen and oxygen, separated by a permeable membrane -- to produce electricity. "The space program uses hydrogen-and-oxygen fuel cells, and that works very well," Keil said. "But hydrogen gas is not practical for cars. Methanol is flammable, but not nearly as bad as hydrogen. And it is easily produced."

The proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell works by extracting hydrogen from the liquid methanol and forcing each hydrogen molecule to lose an electron, converting it to a proton. The speed at which the proton moves through the membrane to interact with the oxygen determines the amount of electricity that is generated. The elements recombine on the other side of the membrane, giving off water as a by-product.

However, methanol tends to migrate through the membrane, and the membranes have so far been expensive to produce and susceptible to wear and tear.

DuPont, the leader in the field, produces a material called Nafion for membranes, consisting of a perfluorinated polymer that Kumar said is used in "a very expensive membrane, $700 to $800." DuPont has worked with fuel cells since early space flights.

"Our idea is to use a composite of a polymer and clay material to make the membrane," Kumar said. "It gives us a sturdy membrane that can operate at higher temperatures. It can be produced very cheaply and gives high performance."

Kumar varied the proportions of clay and polymer in batches that resulted in thin rubber-glove like material. He tested different combinations to find out which best holds up under acid tests, used to mimic the harsh environment within fuel cells.

Keil found that the membrane did transport a small amount of methanol, and that the transport process varied according to temperature. But the energy associated with the transport process did not directly correlate with the temperature, meaning there could be more than one transport mechanism, he said.

The next step will be installing the UD-produced membrane in a fuel cell and evaluating its performance.

"The fuel cells we will have in 30 years will work better than the ones we have today," Keil said. "Once you start putting them in automobiles, the diehards who are concerned about the environment will buy them and then we'll start to have more data. From an economic standpoint, real dollars will be flowing to companies that are working on fuel cells. They will improve the product and be competitive."

It will also benefit U.S. foreign policy, Kumar said. "Right now, we are dependent on foreign sources for oil. We import oil from Saudi Arabia, other countries in the Middle East, Russia. We are vulnerable to compromise if we depend on foreign resources. Fuel cells will allow us to rectify that, if we can figure out how to make them inexpensively."

February 14, 2002

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