WPI Hydrogen Research Looks to Fuel Future Economy

Shell Providing $1.5 Million in Grant Funding

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - August 19, 2003 - One of the challenges to creating an infrastructure for a fuel cell-based economy is refining a pure source of hydrogen to power vehicles. A chemical engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Yi Hua Ma, believes the best way to do this is by using membranes made from the precious metal palladium. With more than $1.5 million in grant funding from Shell International Exploration & Production Inc., Ma is engaged in a three-year research study in this area through June 2004 to prove his assertion.

According to Ma, palladium is an excellent membrane for separating hydrogen from gaseous mixtures (the hydrogen is then used as a fuel to power fuel cells). However, palladium costs hundreds of dollars an ounce. The technical challenge for Ma's six-person, interdisciplinary research team is to keep the mass of palladium to a minimum while retaining the performance and properties of the metal.

To do this, Ma's study is concentrating on modifying ultra-thin palladium and palladium alloy films to substantially increase the flow of hydrogen, thereby reducing the palladium cost. The research program is currently in its second phase, and is based on WPI-patented technology developed at WPI's Center for Inorganic Membrane Studies.

"This is one of the largest single industrial grants in this line of research, and one of the largest palladium membrane research groups in the world," notes William W. Durgin, associate provost and vice president for research at WPI. "It complements work being done in WPI's Fuel Cell Center, which together with the palladium membrane research could have a direct and dramatic impact on the direction of society in decades to come."

Potential applications for Ma's research study include refining hydrogen to support fuel cell-powered vehicles - either producing hydrogen on site at individual service stations or in the vehicles themselves; reformulating gasoline; refining crude oil to make them more efficient and to reduce pollutants; and industrial uses requiring large quantities of hydrogen (such as the space shuttle, which is powered by liquid hydrogen).

For fuel cell usage, hydrogen would serve as the fuel for a fuel cell reaction. This is an electrochemical energy conversion process that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, which produces electricity and heat. The electricity in turn can be used to power an engine, such as in an automobile. The only product of the reaction is water.

WPI's Center for Inorganic Membrane Studies develops industry and university collaboration for inorganic membrane research, and promotes and expands the science of inorganic membranes as a technological base for industrial applications through fundamental research. The center has taken an interdisciplinary approach to assemble all of the essential skills in synthesis, modeling, material characterization, diffusion measurements and general properties determinations of inorganic membranes.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865, WPI is a pioneer in technological higher education. WPI was the first university to understand that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom to the solution of important problems. Today its students, working in teams at more than 20 project centers around the globe, put their knowledge and skills to work as they complete professional-level work that can have an immediate positive impact on society.

WPI's innovative, globally focused curriculum has been recognized by leaders in industry, government and academia as the model for the technological education of tomorrow. Students emerge from this program as true technological humanists, well rounded, with the confidence, the interpersonal skills and the commitment to innovation they need to make a real difference in their professional and personal lives.

The university awarded its first advanced degree in 1898. Today, its first-rate research laboratories support master's and Ph.D. programs in more than 30 disciplines in engineering, science and the management of technology. Located in the heart of the region's biotechnology and high-technology sectors, WPI has built research programs-including the largest industry/university alliance in North America-that have won it worldwide recognition.