Professors look to make fuel cells more cost efficient
With gas prices on the rise, research conducted by two UH chemical engineering professors has been finding cost-efficient alternatives to petroleum based-fuels and engines.
"The major hurdle in fuel cell technology is cost," assistant chemical engineering professor Peter Strasser said.
Among the challenges of creating feasible fuel alternatives is finding new materials to replace expensive resources, such as platinum.
"The goal is to lower the production costs of fuel cell engines," Strasser said, "and to make it competitive to car companies."
Strasser is working on hydrogen-powered fuel cells for cars. Current fuel cells need platinum to act as a catalyst to make chemical reactions occur.
"The best catalyst we know today is pure platinum," Strasser said. "(It) is very expensive, and since we need quite a bit of it in order to get the desired power of performance, that’s why we look for materials which contain less platinum, but do the same job."
Fuel cells, first conceived in 1839 by physicist William Grove, use platinum to produce a faster reaction between oxygen and hydrogen to produce energy, while water and heat are byproducts.
"The discovery of the principle was 1839, but at that point nobody knew what to do with it," Strasser said.
Based on Grove’s discovery, platinum is still used to create a catalytic reaction. Strasser and his team of student researchers are working on creating catalytic membranes that use less platinum while maximizing the energy it produces. Strasser’s research has garnered $1.5 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, General Motors and the Houston Advanced Research Center.
Strasser is also working on storing hydrogen more economically.
"We hope to show that in the real world it works," chemical engineering graduate Ratndeep Srivastava said. "Maybe an automobile company can use our catalyst."
Strasser’s research has attracted the attention of car companies, one of which is in negotiations with UH for a research partnership.
Working in tandem with Strasser’s research, chemical engineering professor Michael Harold is developing ways of purifying hydrogen from other gases such as methanol, butane and diesel to power fuel cell engines.
The key to make fuel cell engines work is for pure hydrogen to produce chemical reactions that do not produce pollution, but only energy, heat and water, Harold said.
"We’re coming to a level where it’s being produced economically," chemical engineering graduate Sameer Israni said about the research being conducted.
Harold, also the department chair of chemical engineering, was invited to speak at the American Chemical Society last week about his six-year research on hydrogen purification.
"The driving force behind this research is need," Harold said.
Despite fuel cells being popularized by rising gas prices, Harold’s research has been ongoing for roughly six years.
The procedure uses a nuclear membrane reactor to filter hydrogen from other gases in a two-step process. Palladium, a malleable metal, is used to extract pure hydrogen, and filters any other gases.
Harold said that storing hydrogen is a challenge because of the containers, which are bulky, making the mass ratio 5 percent hydrogen to 95 percent metal. The hydrogen is stored at high pressures in metal containers, which are dangerous if punctured or damaged.
"Our problem with using hydrogen is that hydrogen is a gas," Israni said. "You need to keep it at high pressures, and keep it in a tank."
Hydrogen fuel cells have brought about issues of safety and affordability. Purifying a set amount of hydrogen would help solve the problem of storage so that people would only use what they need.
"Rather than cart hydrogen, it’s better to have a high-density fuel cell that can be converted to hydrogen as needed in order to avoid issues with storage," Harold said. "It addresses a technological need."