University researchers from several fields of engineering are attempting to curb dependency on foreign oil reserves and reduce hazardous emissions for automotive vehicles through the efficient use of fuel cell technology. The push from Washington to promote safer cars was a key part of President Bush’s State of the Union address last month.

Fuel cells are electrochemical engines that create electricity without combustion or adding pollution to the environment by using hydrogen as fuel. The process is efficient and environmentally clean, chemical engineering Prof. Yohan Schwank said.

Schwank is refining methods to decrease size of the device that produces hydrogen smaller, in order to increase efficiency. “There are many methods being tested but the most well-known uses electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, making hydrogen available for use in stationary and mobile applications,” Schwank said.

Bush’s pledge of future investment in fuel cells has sparked greater enthusiasm surrounding energy-safe automotive emissions control. “It was particularly encouraging that the president noted the importance of hydrogen to the nation’s overall energy mix, not only as a fuel for vehicles but for electrical power as well,” said Mary Detloff, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

With possible war in the Middle East looming and global warming increasing, America’s dependence on oil to fuel national transportation is hastily growing in importance to the nation, Detloff added. “It’s absolutely vital to promote energy independence for the United States by relaxing dependency on foreign oil reserves, all while improving the environment,” she said.

The process of producing fuel cells requires a collaborative effort for development between many different types of engineers. Automotive engineering Prof. Heui Peng is examining different forms of air when applied within the fuel cell to test effectiveness in changing conditions.

Beliefs or current expectations for the future in the development of fuel cell technology in the market are truly based on an ability to be profitable and receive financing, Peng said

Automotive companies like Honda and Nissan are producing hydrogen fuel cell technologies that have substantial potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the short term, Peng added. Although very expensive for today’s markets, these manufacturers have developed environmentally clean products, which are currently for lease but not for sale, Heung said.

To become a reality, the hydrogen economy will need to overcome many obstacles, among them technology refinement and infrastructure development, Schwank said. Making fuel cells cost-effective and appealing to consumers could easily take 10 to 20 years, he added.

There are promising ways to gradually develop fuel cell technology while carefully incorporating it into the present day infrastructure, Schwank said. Over the next two decades, hydrogen fuel cells will become a very integral part of energy infrastructure, he said.

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