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CMU fuel cell research

Driving for a better fuel cell

Energy Department grants power the work of an international team of CMU researchers

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

When Yazan Maswadeh, of Jordan, decided to pursue his Ph.D., he didn't search the web for universities, he looked for researchers who were doing work in his field of crystallography.

"I was seeking high-level research. There are very few people in the world who are conducting this kind of research."

That's how he found Valeri Petkov, a faculty member in Central Michigan University's physics department.

"His research areas interested me," Maswadeh said. "So I just sent him an email saying that I am a student from Jordan who has just finished my master's degree in physics and my research interest is in atomic structural analysis. If you have a Ph.D. position, I would be a valuable component to your research."

Petkov interviewed Maswadeh online and encouraged him to apply to CMU. 

"I did not have prior knowledge about CMU, or where it was located. But I thought 'I'll apply to this university.'"

Now as a doctoral student in the Science of Advanced Materials program in CMU's College of Science and Engineering, Maswadeh is part of an international team of CMU researchers working to identify the weak points in fuel cells and give feedback to other researchers to improve them. The research is being funded by another $238,000 in a seven-year string of grants from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“There’s a feeling in the air that they can finally make it work in a few more years.” – Valeri Petkov, physics faculty member

Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, leads the team. He is joined by Joseph Ausmus, a physics master's degree student from Iowa, and physics postdoctoral researcher Jorge Vargas-Tellez, from Mexico. A student from China is expected to join them in the fall. 

Why fuel cells?

The United States and other countries are looking for cleaner and more efficient power sources to replace fossil fuels. 

"The biggest challenge," Petkov said, "is to come up with an energy supply that is all around us, is portable, doesn't need special investments into grids, and that anybody can use to power their car, house or business."

Fuel cells are very efficient, about 70 percent compared to 26 percent for gasoline in cars. They don't pollute and their hydrogen "fuel" is abundant. Indeed, there already are 31 hydrogen fueling stations in California to keep cars with fuel cell "engines" rolling. And while it can take hours to charge a fully electric car, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can fill up in about three to five minutes – just a bit longer than it takes to fuel a car or truck with gasoline.

But they have their problems, Petkov said, particularly in cars. He noted that currently they cannot operate in extreme temperatures and are too costly for the average person. Nonetheless, federal agencies, the Army and many companies – including IBM, 3M, GM, GE – are spending big money to try to perfect fuel cells. And they need to be tested.

The CMU team

That's where Petkov and his team of chemists and engineers come in. Collaborators from industry and academia give them the latest fuel cells so they can identify problems and offer potential solutions. Precious or rare metals – such as palladium, platinum, gold and iridium – are needed to accelerate the sluggish chemical reactions inside the cells but are too expensive, Petkov said. So they are testing alternative materials. 

The team does much of its research near Chicago at the Argonne National Laboratory, which provides the type of X-rays needed to test the alternative materials as they function inside the cells.  

Maswadeh is using his knowledge to analyze the microstructure of the materials down to the atomic level to see if an answer lies there.

"For now, this is a hot topic," Petkov said. "There's a feeling in the air that they can finally make it work in a few more years."

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