Invenio 2009

The fuel future ... through nanotechnology

Fuel cell lab

With their eyes toward the future, researchers at Lamar University are helping bring this country one step closer to a viable alternative energy source.

Using fuel cell technology, scientists in the College of Engineering are working not only on cutting-edge military programs, but also on applications that may be used in every-day living.

What are fuel cells? In laymen’s terms, fuel cells are like a battery that never runs out of energy or never needs recharging. Instead, a reaction of hydrogen, oxygen and water produces energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied. A fuel cell is made up of two electrodes that are wedged between an electrolyte. When oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen passes over the other, electricity, water and heat are generated. Hydrogen fuel is then funneled into the anode—or positive electrode—of the fuel cell. Oxygen, in the form of the air we breathe, enters the fuel cell through the cathode—or negative electrode. A catalyst causes a reaction that splits the hydrogen atom into a proton and an electron, which travel through different paths back to the cathode. The proton passes through the electrolyte, and the electrons create a separate current before returning to the cathode where they are reunited with the hydrogen and oxygen in a molecule of water.

Hydrogen fuel cells are the focus of a project overseen by professor David Cocke, director of the Fuel Cell and Energy Systems Center and Gill Professor of Chemical Engineering at Lamar University.

Cocke, who has been with Lamar University since 1989, has been working with hydrogen fuel cells and related research since the 1970s. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree in chemistry from Lamar and a doctorate in chemistry from Texas A&M University, Cocke has long been interested in environmental and catalysis research. He studied at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, Germany, with scientists he considers the best catalyst and hydrogen researchers in the world and worked for Chicago-based Universal Oil Products.

Cocke became interested in alternative energy sources during the “first energy crisis” in this country during the 1970s, when many can remember waiting hours in line on alternating days to buy gasoline. At Texas A&M University, he was able to work with two great names in the scientific community—John Bockris and John Appleby—on developing more hydrogen-based energy. When Lamar University began research and development in the area of energy technology, Cocke was thrilled. “Lamar is pioneering new nanostructured catalysts that make the fuel cells more efficient and reduce the cost of fuel cells,” he said. “Lamar’s strategy is to enhance hydrogen use with an eye to the future.”

Currently, one of the primary applications of the fuel cell research being conducted at Lamar is for projects with the Department of Defense. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Command Technical Center in Huntsville, Ala., needs mission-oriented applications for the fuel cells to increase the life-expectancy of unmanned aircraft and for other mechanisms.

Cocke believes the hydrogen fuel cell will eventually power the modern soldier. “Right now, the soldier has to carry something like 48 pounds of batteries,” he said. “A hydrogen fuel cell works more efficiently for a longer period of time and only weighs a few ounces. All they have to do with hydrogen fuel cells is keep supplying them with hydrogen. They’re not something that you throw away.”

Lamar University is proud of its affiliation with the United States military and works hard to serve our country through its research capabilities. Lamar University is also working with industry to advance fuel cell and catalysis research. They’ve taken the first step by partnering with industry leaders who not only advance research, but also aid in the education of Lamar students. Through their partners in industry, Lamar students are afforded the unique opportunity to participate in real-world applications for their areas of study.

“Fuel cells can be used to power everything from a cell phone to a major building,” Cocke noted. “They can be used for something like an emergency power back-up or to power a hospital during a hurricane.” Fuel cells are already used to power fork lifts and pallet movers in some markets. The next logical step is to employ fuel cells to power automobiles. As a matter of fact, car manufacturers are already working diligently on a fuel cell-powered vehicle. Prototypes do exist, but the technology—and cost—keep them out of reach of the average consumer. “They’re awesome vehicles, but too expensive to be sold on the open market,” Cocke said.

The residential applications of fuel cell research are more viable and closer to becoming a reality. Some fuel cells are already being used in communities in Florida. “Hydrogen and fuel cells are going to be an integral part of the future of the United States and the world,” Cocke said. “The European Union, as well as China and the Pacific Rim countries are already heavily into researching this. We seek to extend the technologies to produce more efficient energy and find more renewable sources of our energy.

“I’ve been working on this since the 1970s, and what I’m certain of is that we can’t continue to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide from conventional ways of getting energy. This is a useful energy with great quality-of-life applications. We’re working hard to make it accessible to everyone.”