The widely publicized hydrogen fuel cell has capabilities that go beyond any traditional energy source, with many hoping that it will end America’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Jess Cox
The diagram shows the process a fuel cell undergoes to generate electricity. The negative electrons of the hydrogen fuel first produce electricity and then combine with the protons from the oxygen in the air which then form liquid water.
(GRAPHIC BY Lin
Jess Cox
A fuel cell in the automotive lab on North Campus.
(EUGENE ROBERTSON/Daily)

But because of its high cost and fragility, as of now, the highly efficient electrical device has yet to be commercialized.

Researchers on campus are currently solving some of the complex problems that have prevented the fuel cell — which theoretically could be used to supply electricity to anything from cell phones to cars — from being available for everyday purposes.

A hydrogen fuel cell works by running off of the negative electrons of hydrogen to generate electricity. The electrons from the hydrogen then recombine with the protons of oxygen to form liquid water.

With this kind of battery that undergoes no form of combustion, emissions are very low, making fuel cells more environmentally sound.

However, aside from the expensive building materials, one other major obstacle to the proliferation of fuel cells is the high costs of their maintenance and manufacturing.

Levi Thompson, a researcher at the University, is working on creating ground-breaking manufacturing methods that would allow fuel cells to be assembled without the high costs.

“If we can optimize the methods we may use less of those expensive materials,” said Thompson, chemical engineering professor.

While fuel cells are traditionally assembled in individual pieces and then put together to make one large fuel cell, Thompson is applying microfabrication to create fuel cells that consist of multiple mini-fuel cells.

In microfabrication, many tiny structures, about the size of one micrometer, are put together in thin layers. For the construction of fuel cells, Thompson said he can use this manufacturing technique to add sheet-like layers of micro-fuel cells to create a fuel cell.

This manufacturing method could significantly decrease the cost of hydrogen fuel cells from $10,000 a kilowatt to less than $1,000.

“There could be some limited applications within the next few years, most of those will be small devices … but this is still research. It’s up to the companies to decide if it’s actually commercializable or not,” Thompson said.

Anna Stefanopoulou, an associate mechanical engineering professor also involved in fuel cell research at the University, thinks that fuel cells are of more importance globally than just in America.

In countries without fossil fuel infrastructures, fuel cells can provide a means of electricity that they would otherwise be without, Stefanopoulou said.

“We can actually be global players and change a lot of things all over, not just in the U.S.,” Stefanopoulou said.

Stefanopoulou is working on improving the dependability of the fuel cells, another problem that is also hampering its commercialization.

“I am basically trying to understand what the fuel cell needs at all times. I think the most important problem right now is the reliability: How long can it be used, what kind of cycles can they be used for before they are pushed into their limit,” Stefanopoulou said.

Currently, Stefanopoulou is using computer-programming techniques to develop algorithms that will solve intricate problems involving the dynamics and performance of fuel cells.

“Chemical engineers put (fuel cells) together years ago, but you can not yet put them in a real-world application. If something goes wrong with them, there are not very many ways we can predict what went wrong,” Stefanopoulou said.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined representatives from several automotive corporations in a discussion panel highlighting Michigan’s role in commercializing fuel cell technology.

The University will play a large role in these technological advancements, said Automotive Research Center Director Dennis Assanis.

“The energy questions that our society faces are really grand and we have to find ways to improve conservation resources … with the automotive sector being responsible for one-third of energy consumption in this country, working on environmentally friendly alternatives can make a dramatic difference for years to come,” Assanis said.

But these reforms are still a distant vision for the automobile and other commercial industries.

As of now, fuel cells are used in very specific applications, such as spacecrafts, where cost is not an issue, said David Cole of the Automotive Research Center.

In the near future, Cole said fuel cells will probably be used as power plants.

“The first significant application is not going to be automotive but a distributive electrical power generation. Large utilities will be in the middle of this,” Cole said.

Researchers agree that consumers won’t use fuel cells in major applications such as automobiles for at least 15 to 20 years when costs will hopefully have decreased.

“The biggest challenge is a straightforward one … economics from the standpoint of the consumer and we need a lot of invention … when it will occur or if it will occur is still a question,” Cole said.

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