The Quest for an Affordable Fuel Cell
Issue: Fall 2007The Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (ChBE) has a long history of leadership in the area of electrochemical science and engineering. More specifically, ChBE has been recognized for decades as one of the premier institutions in fuel cell research. The most prominent companies in the fuel cell industry have been developed under the leadership of IIT graduates. Pioneers such as the late Bernard S. Baker (Ph.D. ChE ‘69), founder of the Energy Research Corporation, and holder of 20 patents related to fuel cells and other electrochemical systems; and Hans C. Maru (Ph.D. ChE ‘75), holder of 13 fuel cell patents; are just a few ChBE alumni whose contributions to the advancement of fuel cell technology are immeasurable.
A team of world-renowned ChBE faculty is now training the next generation of electrochemical science and engineering researchers, with the determination to fulfill the dream of developing an affordable fuel cell. This dream dates back to 1838, when Christian Friedrich Schönbein, the famed German scientist responsible for the discovery and naming of ozone, developed the principle of the fuel cell in 1838. Building upon the design that Schönbein outlined, Welsh scientist William Robert Grove constructed the first fuel cell in 1843 which combined hydrogen and oxygen to create electrical energy. Since then, the fuel cell has undergone remarkable developments, enhancements and changes in scientists’ attempts to create an affordable fuel cell capable of widespread use.
Current Fuel Cell Research
ChBE’s fuel cell team consists of a number of faculty members, including Said Al-Hallaj, research associate professor and coordinator of Renewable Energy Programs; Donald J. Chmielewski, associate professor and associate chair of graduate affairs; Jai Prakash, professor and director of the Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering; Vijay Ramani, assistant professor; and Robert J. Selman, IIT Distinguished Research Professor. Each faculty member brings his own unique approach to investigating new means of making fuel cells more efficient and affordable.
Prakash’s research is focused on the cathode portion of the fuel cell. Platinum, which is currently used as the catalyst to reduce oxygen to water, is by far the most expensive element used in fuel cells. Along with his research students, Prakash is testing cheaper alternatives to platinum – including cobalt, palladium and nickel alloys to reduce the cost of fuel cell production. He also is studying the carbon monoxide tolerance of the anode as a means of unlocking other compounds that may be effective in using a fuel cell. By examining how different materials interact, Prakash expects to discover new ways of making fuel cells more efficient.
Concentrating on the membrane level of the fuel cell, Ramani and his students are investigating different organic and inorganic hybrid materials that help improve membrane conductivity and durability. Water management is critical to the fuel cell’s conductivity and performance, characteristics that hinder the effectiveness of this technology. Through this research, Ramani hopes to develop a fuel cell membrane that can conduct without water and thereby opens fuelcells to other more successful conductive materials.
While other faculty members are focused on specific aspects of the fuel cell, Chmielewski concentrates on the performance of the entire fuel cell stack. In this area, he examines performance-related characteristics of this technology, including stresses that occur within the stack, factors that limit the lifetime of a stack and heat generation. Chmielewski also studies changes in power demand applications, such as those required in the operation of a vehicle. Through his research, he hopes to unlock many of the obstacles hindering the performance and durability levels of fuel cell stacks.
Al-Hallaj’s research interests are focused on a number of areas related to renewable energy, including advanced battery and fuel cell systems for hybrid and electric vehicles. Most recently, Selman, Al-Hallaj and their team of student researchers have focused on fabrication and synthesis using electrolysis in solid oxide fuel cells. In March 2007, Selman, in collaboration with Al-Hallaj, was awarded a patent for an electrostatic spray deposition technique that makes electrodes thinner at the micro-level in high throughput applications. Combining this research with his interests in hybrid vehicles, Al-Hallaj is also working on a hybrid scooter that combines a battery with a fuel cell to operate with hydrogen fuel.
The focus on the entire fuel cell system is ultimately what sets IIT’s research in this area apart from other institutions. By combining each of these professors’ research areas, faculty members and students are able to examine the fuel cell stack as a whole, giving them the ability to test efficiency, durability, design and performance levels. Coupled with unparalleled tradition in fuel cell research and opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in this technology, ChBE offers one of the most recognized, established and accomplished fuel cell research programs in the world.
To ready our faculty's predictions for the future of fuel cells, download the 2007 issue of Crosslinks.