Putting hydrogen to work

by David Rumbach

SOUTH BEND — A small tank of hydrogen makes a camp lantern glow in one of the University of Notre Dame’s underground engineering labs.p. Hydrogen flows through a series of hoses, valves and gauges into what looks like a square stack of black wafers. Metal plates on each side of the stack are wired to the light.p. The tabletop array, rigged up to demonstrate why hydrogen fuel cells are so promising and may change the world, also demonstrates the many reasons why the fuel cells may fizzle instead.p. Despite the fact it’s holding the lightest element there is, this tank is surprisingly heavy. The black wafers that strip electrical current from hydrogen are bulky and expensive.p. Anyone in their right mind would pop a couple of old-fashioned D batteries into their lantern rather than cart this contraption to the woods.p. “The big problem with hydrogen fuel cells is going to be cost,” Paul McGinn, an ND professor of biochemical and chemical engineering, said. “It’s going to have to compete with what’s already out there.”p. McGinn is among the army of researchers around the world who are chipping away at the technical problems that now block hydrogen fuel cells from making it big in the market.p. He’s the lead scientist on a team of Notre Dame researchers (and one from Indiana University Northwest) recently awarded a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Army’s Communications and Electronics Command.p. The ND team is looking for novel materials that can be substituted in the fuel cells to make them cost less, weigh less, work better or otherwise improve.p. Hydrogen fuel cells are ballyhooed as an environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuel because they use an abundant element as fuel and give off water as the main byproduct.p. The dream is to reduce both greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil in one stroke, converting society to a “hydrogen” economy. Everything from powering cars to heating houses can be accomplished with hydrogen fuel cells.p. What the Army wants from Notre Dame, McGinn said, are fundamental breakthroughs that lead to lighter, longer-lasting power sources for the many electronic devices that the modern soldier carries into battle.p. “The Army is interested in mobility, as we saw in the recent Iraq conflict,” he said. “They spend a huge amount of money bringing batteries to the battlefield.”p. One angle the ND researchers are taking in this quest is to search for an alternative to the platinum and other precious, non-corroding metals currently used in fuel cells.p. Platinum commonly serves as the key element in the catalyst that makes the cells work, McGinn said. They strip electrons off the hydrogen molecules and set up the electrical current that provides the power.p. One experiment under way at ND tests different combinations of five metals as potential catalysts. It’s being done in a lab two floors below ground level in the bottom of the Fitzpatrick Hall of Engineering.p. (The fact it’s so subterranean also has to do with the issue of dependence on foreign oil. The building was designed during the energy crisis of the late 1970s to have 60 percent of its space underground insulated by earth.)p. The metals are sprayed in thin layers on discs, which are then fed into a machine that evaluates their properties. Theory tells researchers which metals are most promising to try, McGinn said, but it takes actual trials to find the best combination.p. It’s a lottery with a big prize at stake. If the researchers find a combination that beats platinum, its contract with the Army allows the university to sell the information to private industry, McGinn said. Other results of the experiment will be published.p. Other ND researchers are looking at potential uses for carbon nanotubes in fuel cells as well as studying the “microfluidics,” or interplay of liquids and gases, within the cells.p. Nanotubes, tubes of carbon molecules that are very tiny and very strong, might help reduce the weight of hydrogen storage tanks. The tanks now being used are basically metal sponges, composed of hydrides that absorb hydrogen.p. There’s no guarantee ND’s research will bear fruit, just as the future of hydrogen fuel in the free market remains an open question.p. “Can we say for sure we’ll find something in the next six months?” McGinn said. “No, you can never say that.”p. p. Staff writer David Rumbach:
_ drumbach@sbtinfo.com _
(574) 235-6358 p. p. July 7,2003

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