The University Record, May 6, 2002

Alternative fuel research under way at U-M

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

The current energy crisis and the conflict in the Middle East may have accelerated the nation’s interest in developing alternative fuel sources, but U-M researchers say they have been working on a number of projects for years, and in some cases decades. They also say it will be some time before we all are driving cars powered by hydrogen. The technology is here but needs a substantial research effort to make it practical and economical.

Operating a vehicle on fuel cells is possible today, according to Johannes Schwank, professor of chemical engineering, College of Engineering (CoE). DaimlerChrysler was the first to test a car driven by fuel cells in 1994. “Renault has developed a fuel-cell-driven vehicle requiring hydrogen storage on board,” says Schwank. “The one place left in the vehicle is just the front seat because so much room is taken up by the storage device and the equipment to power the vehicle.”

Much work has to be done in the areas of hydrogen storage and transportation, cheaper generation of hydrogen fuel, and development of the infrastructure to support the move to a new fuel, says Gary Was, associate dean for research for engineering. “Every one of the steps in development of fuel cell technology brings about another challenge,” Was says. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Engineering has the largest involvement of three colleges on the Ann Arbor campus with 17 sponsored research programs on advanced and alternative energy technology. The college’s projects alone total $20 million—an impressive figure—but considerably shy of what needs to be spent to move the technology along as quickly as officials would like, according to Levi Thompson, associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of chemical engineering. Thompson is hopeful Governor Engler’s initiative will translate into more research dollars. To “be a player” in a field where there are many participants nationwide, Thompson says research dollars would need to increase, perhaps as much as tenfold.

To assist in focusing its activities, the College of Engineering has established a Council on Hydrogen-based Energy Technologies to explore the broad spectrum of research and education issues that need to be addressed in creating a hydrogen-based economy.

Current U-M research includes a $6 million CoE program focusing on fuel cells and fuel cell technology. In addition, plans are under way to establish a center for hydrogen technology that will address challenges involving the generation, storage and transport of hydrogen, its utilization, and the economic, social, regulatory and environmental issues that would face a growing hydrogen economy.

Examples of the projects under way include:

  • Prototype 1-25 kWe gasoline processors for Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells—“Filling up” a car with hydrogen gas will not be practical in the near future. Needed are processors that will convert inexpensive hydrocarbon fuels like methanol, gasoline and diesel into hydrogen-rich gas. These processors depend on the development of new microchannel reactors and microcombustors, and cheaper and more efficient catalysts, to accelerate the chemical reactions that convert hydrocarbons to hydrogen.

  • The Intelligent Vehicle System Dynamics—Using fuel cells effectively in automobiles will require knowledge that goes beyond the laboratory to the behavior of fuel cells in actual use in urban environments, and during typical urban driving cycles. A University program is investigating the interactions and limitations of a fuel cell system to provide the knowledge needed to make such systems as simple and fuel-efficient as possible while maintaining high performance.

  • Fueling Infrastructure—Since there aren’t any “hydrogen stations” along America’s highways, a group of physicists and researchers from the School of Natural Resources and Environment is conducting a scenario-based analysis to explore the dynamics involved in setting up such an infrastructure over the next 50 years, to prepare for the introduction of mass-produced fuel cell vehicles.

  • Micro-Fuel Cells and Novel Electrocatalysts project—Another application for PEM fuel cells is their use in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), as micro-power supplies. PEM fuel cells are ideal candidates for this use since their energy densities are higher and their recharge times are faster than batteries. The goal is to develop highly efficient, mW-sized hydrogen PEM fuel cells and to demonstrate their use in powering a MEMS device.

    In addition to hydrogen-powered fuel cells, James MacBain, director for research relations at the CoE, says researchers also are focusing on hybrid systems that would use a combination of electricity and internal combustion for a more energy efficient and environmentally-friendly vehicle. Additionally, the University is researching a number of other potential fuels.

    Energy Research at the College of Engineering

    Energy Sources
    Coal, Gas, and Oil
    Internal Combustion
    Hybrid Vehicles
    Fuel Cells & Processors
    Turbine Propulsion Systems
    Solar Cells
    Ocean Wave Energy

    Energy Infrastructure
    Oil Drilling Platforms
    Power Distribution Systems
    Harbor and Coastal Facilities Design

    Enabling Technologies
    Materials Behavior & Characterization
    Sensors and Controls
    Ocean Instrumentation Design
    Low Power Electronics
    Information and Database Technologies
    Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles
    Robotics/Remotely Guided Vehicles (land-based)

    Energy and the Environment
    Earth Atmospheric Analysis and Monitoring
    Power Consumption and Conservation
    Earth Systems Modeling and Processes
    Pollution Prevention and Control Technologies
    Environmental Monitoring
    Material Recycling