Kettering researcher studies how automobiles and other devices can be powered by fuel cells - which are efficient and don't pollute the environment

Kettering researcher studies how automobiles and other devices can be powered by fuel cells - which are efficient and don't pollute the environment

Mar 11, 2002

Dr. Etim Ubong dreams of finding an alternative fuel for automobiles and other man-made machines.

Etim Ubong is a man in search of gold.

Not the "black gold" or "Texas tea" that TV's Jeb Clampitt discovered during a day of hunting in the Appalachian Mountains. There's no crude oil bubbles or exhaust coughs in Ubong's dream of finding an alternative fuel for automobiles and other man-made machines.

Instead, the byproduct this Mechanical Engineering associate professor envisions spouting from the future of vehicles is one of the purest and natural resources available in the world today: water.

Fuel cells, Ubong said, are electrochemical devices that produce electricity, heat and water by using the chemical energy stored in hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst.

WHAT IS A FUEL CELL? A fuel cell consists of an electrolyte sandwiched between electrodes. The precise operation of a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which is the primary candidate for automotive applications, is fairly simple. At the anode, the hydrogen gas is ionized, producing free electrons and H+ ions. The ions flow through a membrane and combine with oxygen at the cathode to form water. The electrons then flow from the cell anode to the cathode through the external circuit to create electricity. As long as the reactants (pure hydrogen and oxygen) supply the fuel cell, it produces electricity, which can be applied to an external load.

INVENTED IN 1839: The fuel cell was originally invented in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a professor of Experimental Philosophy at the Royal Institution of London. The first fuel cell was composed of platinum enclosed in tubes of hydrogen and oxygen gas while submerged in sulfuric acid. However, Grove's initial attempts at creating a working fuel cell were hobbled by inconsistent performance. Nonetheless, his work helped future researchers like Ubong realize the significance of three-phase contact in generating energy.

HIGH EFFICIENCY, LOW EMISSIONS: Many automakers feel that fuel cells have the potential to replace internal combustion engines in automobiles because fuel cells offer higher efficiency and reduced emissions. Additionally, recent interest and rapid advances in fuel cell development in the past decade have led to increased research and widespread application of fuel cells for power generation and vehicles. But for all of its technological and theoretical advancements and applications, some of the more notable aspects that make fuel cell research and its adoption so intriguing to Ubong include the impact on society and our environment.

"A fuel cell is very environmentally friendly," Ubong explained. "The byproduct of the hydrogen and oxygen reaction in a PEM fuel cell is drinkable water. But this is only one of the many benefits of fuel cells."

NO MOVEABLE PARTS: Based on his research, fuel cells operate more efficiently than an internal combustion engine, which represents yet another benefit when faced with the increased amount of pollution entering the atmosphere. Why? Because a fuel cell does not use any moveable parts. Since it doesn't create internal combustion and converts its fuel of hydrogen and oxygen to electrical energy, the only "exhaust," or byproduct, is heat and water, which makes this system virtually pollution free.

"In terms of performance, fuel cell powered vehicles are also smoother, create less noise, travel long distances and generate speeds of more than 100 miles an hour," Ubong added.

And unlike petroleum oil, fuel cells offer a renewable and clean source of energy that will always be available, one unaffected by social or political philosophies and strategies, aspirations and practices of countries and groups of people. More importantly, Ubong feels that fuel cells can serve as the primary source of energy in vehicles as well as in devices such as video cameras, boats and wheelchairs. In his view, Kettering has the chance to stand on the threshold of fuel cell research based on the University's unique relationship with industry and the institution's ability to produce highly educated and professionally trained graduates.

PREPARING STUDENTS: Many companies are currently conducting research into the use of fuel cells," he noted. "Eventually this kind of energy source could replace combustion engines, which means we have the chance to prepare students now by educating them on the development and use of fuel cells. In fact, some companies use fuel cells in various commercial applications, which may suggest that the technology will gain broader use in the near future."

Evidence of Ubong's claim can be found in a recent industry report that Honda plans on producing and selling a fuel cell-equipped vehicle on the American market next year.

See the link at: http://www.eyeforfuelcells.com/ReportDisplay.asp?ReportID=1166.

POWER FERRYBOATS? Based on another report, officials from the Water Transit Authority and City of San Francisco recently announced plans to design and build the first ferryboat powered by fuel-cell technology.

See the link at: http://www.eyeforfuelcells.com/ReportDisplay.asp?ReportID=1163

These are just a few examples of why Ubong believes that giving students a chance to learn more about fuel cell technology as undergraduates produces a win-win situation for the school and companies.

STUDENT WORKFORCE: "I would like to see companies call Kettering with special requests for assistance with their fuel cell work, and for us to provide them with enthusiastic students trained and ready to work on their fuel cell projects," he said. "At the present time, I have many students who enjoy studying the use of alternative fuels such as fuel cells and they express a desire to contribute to the research."

His hope for Kettering and relationship to fuel cell development is simple: "to become a leader in this area and known throughout the country and perhaps the world for producing important research on fuel cells as well as students experienced in the development of this resource. We began looking at fuel cells in 1997 with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Office of Technology here at the University, so the seeds for this research were planted early, in some cases much earlier than many universities. That's why I feel the payback for Kettering could be substantial if we can develop a state-of-the-art laboratory for fuel cell research."

But Ubong is a realist and understands that his dream of this fuel cell research facility comes with some cost. Professor K. Joel Berry, head of the Mechanical Engineering Department and a 1979 graduate of Kettering/GMI, fully supports Ubong's work and has provided a space for a fuel cell laboratory in the school's new Mechanical Engineering and Chemistry Center, scheduled for completion in 2003.

KETTERING WEBSITE ON FUEL CELLS: http://www.kettering.edu/~altfuel

To further increase awareness and exposure to the benefits and advantages of this research, Ubong maintains a sophisticated website (www.kettering.edu/~altfuel) that helps him build on his base of knowledge by sharing information on his research with other universities, companies and organizations engaged in the same activity. These resources, he hopes, will help persuade foundations, companies and individuals to support the development of a fuel cell research laboratory at Kettering University within the next few years.

"Because fuel cells use hydrogen, which is lighter than air and can disperse more easily, we need appropriate facilities to conduct research and tests, and to dispose of used compounds," he said. "The space that Dr. Berry has designated for this laboratory will be of significant help. My next step is to develop proposals and obtain funding of approximately $500,000 to get the lab up and running."

FUEL CELL SUMMITS: Fortunately, a number of organizations and people have already expressed support for his efforts based on a review of his research, much of which is posted on his website. A national director of fuel cell helped Ubong connect with other university fuel cell researchers throughout the country during one of the Fuel Cell Transportation Summits sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He is working closely with researchers from some universities that currently run sophisticated fuel cell research laboratories and hopes to set his facility up whenever he has secured enough funding.

"All researchers studying fuel cells seem to understand how important this resource could be to our society and environment," Ubong said. "And because of Kettering's relationships with companies throughout the world, combined with the University's history of producing quality engineers and business leaders, our students can become important players in the ongoing development, future use and incorporation of fuel cell technology into our society. In many ways, this is what drives my work in this area."

And as spring slowly approaches the Flint area, Ubong's dream of gold comes in the form of funding for research and the development of a fuel cell laboratory at Kettering. "This is good for everyone," he said. "The benefits to society and our environment become even greater if we can expose more and more students to alternative sources of power like the fuel cell."

Student interest in fuel cells grows
Since 1997, Dr. Ubong has served as faculty adviser for several students who wrote their senior thesis on the development and use of fuel cell technology in various industries. In addition, Timothy C. Simmons, a 1998 master's of science degree graduate of Kettering and Ubong's first graduate student to work toward his Ph.D. in fuel cells at the University of Florida, co-authored a report with the professor in 1998 titled "Fuel Cell Overview and the Kettering Design: MEA Geometric Definition and its Effect in Fuel Cells," published by Kettering University. Ubong currently uses this report in his classes to provide research information on this resource and stimulate more and more students to consider further study into fuel cell technology. In addition, Simmons recently presented a paper titled "The Effects of Startup and Shutdown of Fuel Cell Transit Bus on the Drive Cycle" at the 2002 SAE International Congress in Detroit.

Written by Gary J. Erwin
(810) 762-9538
gerwin@kettering.edu