Research Highlights / Full Story

Applications of Fuel Cell Technology

Using a research grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Waller is exploring practical methods of applying fuel cell technology to everyday business challenges. 

This type of research occurs at other universities across the world, but what gives Waller and other RIT researchers a leg up is the ability to take a project from a small-scale, experimental stage to full-scale testing of a system or even a vehicle —all in the same facility. This sets RIT apart from many other universities working on advanced energy technology.

The testbed attracts research funding from NIST, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a host of private companies —large and small—looking to advance the fuel cell market and meet the demand for reliable electric power. 

Waller and other RIT researchers focus on practical applications of fuel cell technology. Take, for example, commercial lawn mowers. The majority of mowers use an internal combustion engine that is noisy, run on gasoline (contributing to air pollution), and can potentially leak oil and gas, damaging the grass. Waller wants to use fuel cell technology to convert small amounts of propane into electricity that will ultimately lead to a cleaner, quieter way to operate mowers or other types of vehicles. Applying fuel cells in this way would allow golf course maintenance crews to cut the grass with lower carbon dioxide emissions and without the threat of oil or gas damaging the grass. They’d also be able to run the mowers early in the morning or at night without bothering the neighbors. Fuel cell systems can run for relatively long periods of time. Even a small, one-pound propane tank (the size people typically take camping) can run a lawn mower for several hours, much longer than existing internal combustion or battery-powered equipment. In the testbed, Waller is able to experiment with fuel cell technology and eventually test his ideas in full-scale prototypes.

Dynamometers Can "Stress Test" Engines

The Fuel Cell Testbed also offers access to two dynamometers that are used to provide a mechanical version of a “stress test” on engines. Companies working on new engine or exhaust system components, sensors, or alternative fuel technologies can work with RIT to run tests on new fuels or vehicle designs to understand how they would perform on the road. 

RIT obtained its first dynamometer through a program with the Department of Transportation that explored alternative fuels such as biodiesel, said Thomas Trabold, associate professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility. 

 “Today we use it to help companies in New York state and in other regions that are working to improve efficiency and reduce emissions,” Trabold said. Local companies designing various components can run tests and help evaluate performance claims.

That testing capability expanded several months ago with the installation of a full chassis dynamometer, a sort of rolling road that can measure how different components and fuels perform in an actual vehicle. The room, built in a corner of the GIS building, opens to the parking lot, where a car or other type of vehicle can be driven inside and onto the dynamometer rollers. The dynamometer accelerates the car and can simulate loads such as wind resistance or climbing up hills. Companies have used the tool to test sensors, for example. “We can put a bad part in the car and test to see if a sensor detects it,” Trabold said. “It’s pretty uncommon for a university to have this capability … it’s much closer to a real application.” 

The dynamometers also can be used to test the results of ongoing efforts to convert waste materials, including the university’s waste cooking oil and cafeteria scraps, into biodiesel, ethanol, butanol, and methane-rich biogas for use in RIT vehicles, heating equipment, and engine-generator sets for electricity production.