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USF working hard to make alternative
fuels a reality

Thanks to a recent $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and continuing funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the University of South Florida's Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) continues to pursue research to develop new materials and processes to help produce hydrogen as a safe, efficient and clean usable fuel while improving the performance of existing hydrogen fuel cells.

At a time of skyrocketing oil prices and pressing concerns about clean air, the development of a vehicle power source that emits no pollutants has never been more important. When burned in an engine as fuel, hydrogen produces no emissions with water the only byproduct. However, producing hydrogen is still expensive and researchers are looking for less expensive and more efficient ways of producing it.

To accomplish this, CERC is collaborating with USF's Center for Ocean Technology and the University of Florida's Solar Energy and Energy Conversion lab in addressing some of the challenges laid out in the DOE's National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap (http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/).

According to the DOE, the challenges to making hydrogen the fuel of the future lie in producing hydrogen inexpensively, storing it safely and efficiently converting it into usable energy. CERC is tackling all three concerns.

"Our aim is to maximize hydrogen production yield by improving the process for splitting hydrogen off from water," said Lee Stefanakos, CERC director. "We are also developing better ways to store hydrogen, including using advanced materials, nanotechnology and carbon-based nanotubes and finding better ways to convert hydrogen to usable energy by improving the material of proton exchange membranes (PEMs)."

PEMs are solid thin films that allow positively charged ions to pass but block electrons. Their development is critical to the advancement of hydrogen fuel cell conversion. CERC researchers are exploring new nano-composite materials to improve PEM performance and durability. Their goal is to increase the membrane conductivity and durability and raise the fuel cell operating temperatures to 100-300 degrees Fahrenheit, operating temperatures not possible with current membranes.

"Higher temperatures," said Stefanakos, "will decrease the need for high loading of expensive catalysts, produce higher quality waste heat and better facilitate heat removal through an improved membrane, useful for up to 40,000 hours."

Hydrogen is the third most abundant element. Most of it is found in water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas, coal, gasoline and some natural materials.

To move the nation away from oil and toward hydrogen has required research, funding and legislation.
To increase their funding, researchers are looking forward to the passage of Congressional bill H.R. 4614, the Energy And Water Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2005. H.R. 4614 has passed the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate.

"Congressman Bill Young, who sponsored the bill, has been a great ally, said Stefanakos. "With his continued help and the greater support for our research in Congress, the nation can be more independent and safer."

Stefanakos noted that in his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush requested $1.2 billion for hydrogen fuel research (http://www.eere.energy.gov). Florida Governor Jeb Bush followed up by asking the Florida legislature to appropriate $15 million in January 2005 for hydrogen fuel research and development. The President's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative seeks to make the cost of hydrogen competitive with that of gasoline by the year 2010.

"Whatever the outcome of the November national elections, the momentum we have gained toward freeing ourselves from oil dependency through increased hydrogen fuel research, development and use needs to be carried forward," he said.

Randolph Fillmore, 813-974-9051


This story has been adapted from a news release -
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