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Bright future for fuel cells

RIT is part of the worldwide effort to harness this promising

Fuel cells offer the tantalizing prospect of a world transformed by clean, abundant energy, pollution-free vehicles and independence from fossil fuels.

The Rochester area is poised to become a leader in development of this alternative energy source, with General Motors, Delphi Corp., Harris RF Communications and Hydrogenics focusing fuel cell research efforts at facilities in the region. A number of smaller companies in the region also are involved in fuel cell-related activities, according to Greater Rochester Enterprise, an economic development group dedicated to job creation in the region.

Senator Hillary Clinton chats with CIMS Director Nabil Nasr and his daughter, Laura, at the Alternative Energy in New York Expo2004 held at RIT in February.

“Fuel cell and smart energy technologies represent an opportunity for the Rochester region to drive research initiatives, create a foundation for new jobs, and position Rochester as a leader in developing innovative technologies that make a difference in society and in the environment,” says Michael A. Finney, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise (GRE). “We are pleased to have Rochester Institute of Technology, a leading fuel cell research institution, supporting our efforts to make this a reality for the Rochester region.”

RIT is making contributions in this important field through projects underway in the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS), the Kate Gleason College of Engineering (KGCOE), the College of Science (COS) and the College of Liberal Arts (COLA).

In February, RIT hosted Alternative Energy in New York Expo2004, a daylong conference to explore ways to bring together the human, educational and business resources needed for the region’s investment in new energy. The conference was sponsored by New Jobs for New York, a not-for-profit organization founded last year to encourage economic development and spur job growth in communities facing economic challenges throughout the state. In the event’s keynote address, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton characterized fuel cells as a form of “smart energy” that represents future job growth for the state.

“I do believe we are positioned to be the smart energy capital of the nation,” she told conference participants. “We have all the ingredients to do that, including institutional capital such as RIT.”

Awesome potential

Fuel cells are electromechanical devices that create electricity from sources such as hydrogen and oxygen, giving off heat and water as by-products. Although the first fuel cell was built in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist, serious development of the technology began in the 1960s, when fuel cells were used by NASA to furnish power for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and, later, the space shuttle.

Today, every major automaker in the world is attempting to develop a commercially viable fuel cell-powered car. Fuel cells are already in use in buses, trains and other vehicles, and they are being used to power facilities such as commercial buildings and water treatment plants. The fuel cell market is expected to reach $18 billion in 10 years, according to industry analysts.

As the use of fuel cells grows, research being performed at RIT’s National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery, a unit of CIMS, is examining sustainability in the design cycle as a solution to potential problems that could surface once large-scale production is begun. Considering their current short life cycle, questions remain as to the overall costs and environmental implications of producing, using, and eventually disposing of or recycling fuel cells in large quantities.

“Design decisions are currently being made that will profoundly affect the waste stream challenges of future generations,” says Nabil Nasr, director of CIMS. “Rarely does industry have the know-how and opportunity to address long-term concerns at the birth of product development.”

Last year, Nasr and his research team were awarded a $250,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a sustainable-design approach to proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC). This type of fuel cell is being widely researched by the automotive and energy industry and for use in home power generators. The grant was made possible through the support of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-Fairport, N.Y.) and Congressman Jim Walsh (R-Syracuse), who chairs the House subcommittee that approves funding for the EPA.

Designers of PEMFC systems need guidelines to assist with design decisions encountered along the product development path. The CIMS fuel cell program will develop a comprehensive set of tools and methodologies to be used in the design phase. The keys are reducing life cycle costs and increasing the amount of components that can be recycled or remanufactured.

“The unique opportunity to influence the architecture of the fuel cell early in the adaptation phase should not be lost,” explains Nasr. “Designing components with the ultimate goal of reuse, remanufacturing or recycling significantly reduces the overall cost and environmental implications. The research and implementation of improved design for manufacturing processes will quicken the pace toward viable fuel cell applications.”

A second project, funded by $225,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency, will be underway within the next few weeks. The objective of this project is to address micro fuel cells development, infrastructure, use and disposal challenges. Micro fuel cells can be used in a broad array of products such as laptop computers and other electronic equipment.

One of the early objectives of the CIMS research is to use technology forecasting to provide predictions on the growth of micro fuel cell technology over the next 10 years – and potential problems. Additionally, this forecasting may uncover new technologies likely to emerge in this industry.

Collaborations are an important element of the CIMS research effort. Currently, the team is working with Plug Power, an Albany, N.Y.-based manufacturer of fuel cells for stationary products. CIMS and Plug Power are working with state and federal agencies to increase funding for R&D. The long-term goal is to provide tax incentives and establish the regulatory infrastructure that will serve as the foundation for widespread adoption of distributed power generation.

In the classroom and beyond

Fuel cells have an important place in undergraduate and graduate education and professional development initiatives within RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering.

The Advanced Fuel Cell Research Laboratory in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering focuses on undergraduate and graduate education and professional development in all fuel cell technologies. From left are research professor of mechanical engineering Ramesh Shah, who heads the lab; fifth-year engineering students Christopher Wall and Brian Banazwksi; and Satish Kandlikar, professor of mechanical engineering.

A yearly upper-level undergraduate and graduate course on fuel-cell technology, taught by Ramesh Shah, research professor of mechanical engineering, was offered for the first time last year and is filled to capacity this spring.

A student project in RIT’s Advanced Fuel Cell Research Laboratory includes design of a fuel-cell-powered motorized scooter similar to gasoline-powered scooters in widespread use in many countries. A fuel-cell-powered version would eliminate high levels of pollution generated by existing scooters, says Shah, the lab’s director.

A twice-yearly professional development course, Fundamentals of Fuel Cell Components and Systems, was taught at RIT for the first time in 2002. Shah instructed similar courses last year in Bangladesh and Taiwan. One course focused on portable power for electronic components requiring power of 200 watts or less, such as laptop computers and personal digital assistants.

In a visit to China last December, Shah lectured on “Fuel Cell Technology and Compact Heat Exchangers” at Xi’an Jiatong University, Tsinghua University and Beijing University of Technology. He was recently named a distinguished lecturer on fuel-cell technology by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, making him one of only 16 such lecturers from among more than 100,000 ASME members.

In June, RIT hosts the second International Conference on Fuel Cell Science, Engineering and Technology. Attendees – up to 400 are expected – will hear 15 lectures by industry, academia and government experts on engineering and technology developments in stationary, mobile and portable fuel-cell power generation. Last year’s inaugural conference, also hosted by RIT, drew more than 200.

RIT also hosts the second International Conference on Microchannels and Minichannels in June. Close to 150 papers will be presented, says Satish Kandlikar, professor of mechanical engineering and conference chair. “Minichannels and microchannels are critical components in fuel-cell stack design,” Kandlikar says. “There is tremendous interest in this emerging field.”

Fuel cell stacks are groups of fuel cells “stacked” together to increase power output. As Kandlikar explains, hydrogen and oxygen (air) are supplied to fuel cells through a network of gas distribution channels. The water byproduct within a fuel cell unit is carried away through the same channels – giving it the name “two-phase flow.” Using high speed imaging techniques, researchers in RIT’s Thermal Analysis and Microfluidics Laboratory, directed by Kandlikar, are designing improved distribution methods for reacting gases by studying cooling and gas flow in fuel cells. Working with him in the lab are a post-doctoral researcher along with two doctoral, six master’s and two co-op students. The National Science Foundation, International SEMATECH and other firms have provided research support.

Both upcoming conferences are co-sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Elsewhere at RIT

A number of RIT professors are pursuing fuel cell-related projects, including:

  • Thomas Smith, professor of chemistry in the College of Science, who is synthesizing a model proton exchange polymer and exploring composite polymer membrane materials. These activities are being carried out in collaboration with General Motors Fuel Cell Activities in Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
  • Roman Press, distinguished researcher, and Gerald Takacs, professor of chemistry, formed the RIT Renewable Energy Enterprise (RITree) to analyze the effectiveness of using renewable sources to meet the university’s basic energy needs. Addressing part of this vision, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has approved funding for a study to investigate using gas from a local landfill site as an alternative energy source for a proposed RIT boiler/chiller/co-generation plant.
  • James Winebrake, associate professor and chair of public policy in the College of Liberal Arts and director of the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program, addresses the role of public policy in fuel cell advancement. Winebrake works with Argonne National Laboratory to conduct energy and emissions analysis of fuel cell vehicles; Massachusetts Institute of Technology International Motor Vehicle Program on exploring the role of fuel cells in U.S. transportation; and the National Park Service to provide energy audits and feasibility studies for fuel cell applications in national parks.
  • Director of the NanoPower Research Laboratories Ryne Raffaelle and his team have published and presented their research on developing electrodes using nanomaterials for proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC). The team continues to work with these microscopic materials to develop microelectronic fuel cells on silicon. This research is supported by the Department of Energy.
  • Thomas Gennett, professor of chemistry, works on hydrogen storage using nanotubes with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. His past work at NREL resulted in numerous papers, presentations and patents.

Susan Gawlowicz '95, Kathy Lindsley, Michael Saffran, Paul Stella '03

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