Changing the way America drives: WPI chemical engineer works on fuel-cell power

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WPI doctoral student Tony Thampan, left, and chemical engineering processor Ravi Datta are working on a research project, "Integrated Ethanol Fueled Reformer/Fuel Cell System for Automobiles." (Photo by Neil Norum)

WORCESTER, Mass. - Today's cars are running on empty. Oil supplies are good for only a few more decades. And fossil fuels are also a major source of pollution. If we want to keep the rubber meeting the road, we'll need a miracle, a car that practically runs on water. Actually that dream is becoming a reality.

Ravi Datta, chemical engineering professor and department head at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is researching a mode of transportation that emits essentially no noxious fumes into the atmosphere. It depends on a renewable fuel that can potentially last forever. And, best of all, it's within our reach in the next few years.

It's a fuel-cell car, which uses hydrogen and oxygen (the building blocks of water, H20) to produce electrical energy to power its motor. Datta envisions that car on sale within the next 10 to 20 years. This month DaimlerChrysler unveiled a prototype fuel-cell car that costs $100,000, but that figure doesn't discourage the professor in the least.

"It's a question of the technology being mature and being produced on a mass scale," Datta said. "If we were to produce our current automobile as a prototype, it would also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If it were not mass produced, we really could not afford any of the technology that exists today. So prototypes are not really reflective of the cost of one of these automobiles eventually. The second part of the question is the technology, which is developing but is not there yet."

When the technology is developed, it will be due to researchers like Datta. Along with doctoral student Tony Thampan and research scientist Ilie Fishtik, Datta is working on a project titled "Integrated Ethanol Fueled Reformer/Fuel Cell System for Automobiles."

It's funded by H Power, the U.S. Department of Energy through the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

Fuel cells based on ethanol will mean a transportation industry that won't depend almost exclusively on oil. That's fortunate because the total world oil reserves - about a trillion barrels - are expected to last only 40 to 50 more years.

"I suspect I won't be around, but certainly our children will be around, when the oil runs out," Datta said. "We won't suddenly wake up one day and find that the oil is gone, but it is going to be depleted gradually and become more and more expensive. Some of the alternatives that don't look very attractive today will become more and more attractive in 10 or 20 years."

Pollution also will be greatly alleviated by fuel cells.

"A large part of the air pollution problems, both in this country and elsewhere, are due to transportation," Datta said. "Automobile technology has really improved and the energy efficiency of cars today is much higher than it used to be. But there are limitations on that. If you want to make a quantum increase in the efficiency at which a fuel is utilized in an automobile, you have to go to a radically different technology."

Fuel-cell technology improves on the rechargeable electric car that has already been produced.

"Today's electric cars have inherent limitations because of the weight of the battery that is required," Datta said. "They have a limited range of 70 to 75 miles. After that you have to recharge. And this kind of technology just shifts the source of pollution from the automobile to the power plant. The fuel is being consumed at the power plant, and the consumer is plugging into a socket to charge the car."

Datta says a real breakthrough will come through new technology based on fuel cells. So how does a fuel cell differ from a battery? "The material that stores the energy is packed within a battery. With fuel cells, you feed it continuously to produce the energy you need to run the automobile," Datta said.

Fuel cells run on hydrogen gas, a blessing and a problem. While hydrogen produces no exhaust emissions other than water, images of the Hindenberg dirigible explosion, still etched in the public's mind, are forever tied to on-board hydrogen fuel.

Storage and refueling of hydrogen also present daunting problems. Therefore, part of fuel-cell research aims to discover how to produce hydrogen on demand from conventional liquid fuels.

"It's a technology that has been adopted by all the major auto makers," Datta said. "Everybody has bought into the concept, so it's almost certain in 15 or 20 years to become a viable transportation method." Research at WPI tackles fuel-cell technology from two angles. One effort involves "reformers" that change liquid fuel into gas, mostly hydrogen. Datta is working on reducing the already low levels of carbon monoxide that are also produced.

"Those levels may be okay for emission purposes but are not tolerated by the fuel cells," Datta said. "So we are also doing research into how to improve the fuel cells, making them more robust and more tolerant of carbon monoxide."

Datta is also trying to develop a durable fuel cell that won't need replacing often. "You want a system that will be stable for most of the life of the car," Datta said. Thanks to steady, incremental research, the fuel-cell car will be developed into a viable consumer product. When that happens, WPI researchers will have been part of the solution.

"We are one of the few university groups doing research on both fuel cells and the reformer technologies," Datta noted. "What we do in academia is different from what they do in industry. We are not trying to develop a car. But we break it down into problems that can be worked on by university researchers and doctoral students. We try to address the problems with this new technology - and we hope to fix some of them."