The current energy crisis and the conflict in the Middle East may have accelerated the nations 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 colleges projects alone total $20 millionan impressive figurebut 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 Englers 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:
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.
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