Students work to make fuel-cell technology a viable option

Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

Satish Kandlikar presents his research 
at a recent conference.

Fuel-cell technology is considered one of the most viable alternative-energy resources to decrease U.S. dependence on oil and petroleum products. This next-generation resource has the potential to power automobiles, electronic devices and other emission-producing equipment. Significant contributions to this field have been made by student-researchers in the RIT Thermal Analysis, Microfluidics and Fuel Cell Laboratory in the mechanical engineering department. 

Graduate students Jacqueline Sergi and Michael Daino, part of the lab team, were selected to attend the Fuel Cell Manhattan Project, a conference recently hosted by the Navy Benchmarking and Best Practices Center of Excellence and Montana Tech.  

“The main focus of the conference is to work with fuel cell experts from industry, academia, the Department of Defense and other government agencies in order to develop a best practices primer on fuel-cell manufacturing technology for defense applications,” says Sergi, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. 

The Thermal Analysis, Microfluidics and Fuel Cell Lab has recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with General Motors, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Penn State University to continue its research addressing temperature extremes that affect fuel cell performance.

Before fully implementing fuel-cell technology, researchers in the lab are exploring how to best manage the byproducts of fuel- cell reactions, specifically heat and water formation. The students’ contributions to the field of fuel cells will continue to push the frontier of fuel-cell research helping to bring automotive fuel cells to fruition, says Satish Kandlikar, the James E. Gleason Professor in the mechanical engineering department. 

One of the lab’s most successful areas of research deals with the water management of proton exchange membrane fuel cells. PEM fuel cells are electrochemical devices that use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. Unlike a battery, which stores a finite amount of fuel internally that is eventually depleted, fuel cells can continually run as long as there is a supply of reactants flowing into the cell. 

“Water management within a fuel cell is critical to the cell’s performance and longevity, especially under cold weather and freezing conditions,” explains Daino, a doctoral candidate in the microsystems engineering program. Without adequate hydration, proton conductivity of the membrane cannot be maintained, he explains, but an excess amount of water can lead to flooding, which blocks reaction sites and hinders the flow of reactants. 

For the student-researchers, unraveling the fundamentals of water management is key to solving some of the complex riddles of fuel cell technology implementation. 

“Students are the centerpiece of the research in our lab,” says Kandlikar. “It is amazing to witness the dramatic transformation as students unravel a new dimension of their talent and are contributing at the cutting edge of technology. They are on their way to becoming the top researchers in their chosen field with an unparalleled combination of fundamental and applied science perspective.”

Light shines on RIT research

The leading research of RIT faculty and students is the centerpiece of the fall/winter edition of Research at RIT. The issue, scheduled for release Nov. 1, includes stories on industry-leading efforts in micro-fluidics research and fuel-cell technology as well as nationally recognized work in high-tech outsourcing policy and deaf education. 

Research at RIT is distributed biannually and has previously focused on RIT’s research efforts in imaging, sustainability, Bio-X, energy and modeling. The magazine also highlights national and international awards garnered by RIT faculty and related research conducted throughout campus. 

This summer the Office of the Vice President for Research launched a new website that provides online access to research feature stories, a comprehensive listing of laboratories and centers, previous editions of the magazine, related research videos and more. Access the new website at