Walking fast with her book bag on her back and cellphone in hand, Lin Wang looks like the majority of other students on the University of Miami, but this Beijing-born Ph.D. student participates in activities that confine her to the minority.
Wang is one of four graduate students under Hongtan Liu in the College of Engineering studying how to improve the durability of a cleaner source of energy known as fuel cells, which has sparked commercial interest.
“All companies are working with fuel cells,” Liu, director of the Fuel Cell Laboratory said. “I think it is the future.”
As the price of crude oil has increased, so has the interest in alternative forms of energy. Some students, like Wang, have taken advantage of the spiked interest by pursuing the fuel cell research field.
“Since I know oil will be used up soon, it is a problem the world is facing,” Wang said. “I believe the fuel cells are the promising device to replace the current energy device.”
Unlike the current fossil fuel system, fuel cell technology utilizes a membrane that facilitates the transfer of hydrogen through a cell, therefore producing emission-free energy in the form of electricity. This process aims to eliminate two problems associated with energy production.
“First, fuel cells are more efficient and reduce energy use,” Liu said. “The other is environmental-you reduce pollution and global warming pollutants.”
The technology of fuel cells is currently in use for space applications and can be used by many everyday portable devices such as laptops or electric generators. Another prospect for the use of fuel cells is in the future is in cars to lower the cost of fuel.
“If fuel cost increases then the fuel cell car makes more sense,” Liu said. “The fuel cost will lower because of the efficiency.”
The efficiency of the fuel cells in a car can enable the vehicle to receive mileage of 80 miles per gallon according to Liu.
However, since fuel cells require hydrogen to produce energy, the problem that occurs is cost. Mechanical engineering student Tommy Carpenter, who always had a great interest in cars, realizes the problem.
“Hydrogen is expensive to produce,” Carpenter, junior, said. “It requires a vast amount of electricity.”
In addition, car manufacturers would have to redesign cars to accommodate the fuel cell technology.
“When you jump in the car you can not just turn it on and drive away,” Swain, associate mechanical engineering professor, said. “The battery would drive the car first.”
The added cost for redesign would pose a burden to the car manufactures who would want to adopt the technology.
“It is going to be tough for companies to accept it,” Carpenter said. “For everyday consumers it would be easier to keep their crappy cars.”
Another problem Liu and Wang are exploring the fuel cell’s lack durability independent of another fuel cell.
“Fuels cells don’t last long,” Liu said. “One fuel cell is useless.”
While many of these problems lie in the application of fuel cells to the car industry, another is the funding of research projects to refine the technology.
“I think government can provide funding for students in this area,” Wang said.
After Liu drafted a proposal, Florida, Power, and Light (FPL) awarded the College of Engineering with The FPL Endowed Student Scholarship Fund worth $250,000 on March 6. The scholarship money will go to students of mechanical, industrial, computer, and electrical engineering who want to pursue studies in the areas of alternative energy and fuel cell technology.
Fabiola Stewart can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.