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Hydrogen must be produced from other primary energy sources, such as fossil fuels or biomass. Three of the largest obstacles to commercializing hydrogen-drive fuel cell technology are 1) the high cost of producing hydrogen, 2) hydrogen storage limitations, and 3) the limited infrastructure to deliver the fuel.


Karen Brewer

Karen Brewer, professor of chemistry, and her group have been developing molecular devices for the photoinitiated collection of electrons and the production of hydrogen from sunlight. This research has been expanded to include photoinitiated electron collection in mixed-metal supramolecular complexes and the development of photcatalysts for hydrogen production. Brewer’s most recent research involves a system for the light-driven production of hydrogen from water. Her research is supported by National Science Foundation, the American Chemical Society, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Phoenix Canada Oil Company. A patent is pending for Brewer and student Mark Elvington’s discovery of “Supramolecular Complexes as Photocatalysts for the Production of Hydrogen from Water" (VTIP disclosure 04.107), which is exclusively licensed.


Jiann-Shin Chen

Jiann-Shin Chen, professor of biochemistry, is conducting molecular analyses of bacterial genes and enzymes for the production of useful chemicals. In particular, his research focuses on the characterization of enzymes and genes for the production of acetone, butanol, and isopropanol by anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria live in places without air. In the absence of oxygen gas, anaerobic bacteria do not digest organic materials all the way to carbon dioxide. Instead, they produce large amounts of energy-rich end products like alcohols and hydrogen gas. Butanol and isopropanol are valuable solvents and automobile fuels that can be produced from biomass by several anaerobic bacteria. Research on butanol-producing bacteria is aimed at lengthening the period of production during each cycle of fermentation. Butanol is superior to ethanol as an automobile fuel because of its higher energy content and lower tendency to absorb moisture. Biobutanol is butanol produced by bacterial fermentation and is scheduled to be marketed by a leading oil company for automobile use in 2007. His research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Ishwar K. Puri

Ishwar K. Puri, professor and department head of engineering science and mechanics, is doing atomistic simulations of hydrogen storage in nano structures, specifically carbon nanotubes. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Saifur Rahman and George Hagerman of the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute have done a survey of technologies for producing, transporting, storing, and using hydrogen. The creation of “An Interactive Hydrogen Knowledge Base" was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy. Center for Energy and the Global Environment (CEAGE) researchers compiled the findings into short overviews and fact sheets for use by the general public. CEAGE also facilitated the April 2004 IEEE International Symposium on Hydrogen Energy Economy, in Washington, DC.


Amadeu K. Sum

Amadeu K. Sum, assistant professor, and his students in chemical engineering are studying fundamental properties of clathrate hydrates relevant to the exploration of natural deposits and in energy storage technologies. Clathrate hydrates are crystalline inclusion compounds that incorporate a number of compounds, including natural gas molecules and hydrogen. The research is developing approaches to control the formation, dissociation, and composition of clathrate hydrates to effectively extract and store gases in their structure.


Percival Zhang

Yi-Heng (Percival) Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, is working on cellulosic ethanol production in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, and Mascoma Co. He is also working on biohydrogen production including storage, transport, and conversion with ORNL and the University of Georgia. For example, Zhang and Jonathan R. Mielenz of ORNL have developed a means of “Biohydrogen Production by an Artificial Enzymatic Pathway" (VTIP disclosure 06.035).
       Zhang and Mielenz have designed a novel artificial enzymatic pathway that can convert abundant polysaccharides (starch and cellulose) plus water to net hydrogen and carbon dioxide (VTIP disclosure 06.035). Based on enzymatic reactions and thermodynamic analysis, the overall process is spontaneous and unidirectional. It requires neither energy input nor consumption of coenzymes or other chemicals, once a stable multi-enzyme biocatalyst has been developed. The development could become the basic technology for the hydrogen economy. Imagine a “sugar car,” in which the sugar is converted to hydrogen on board and electricity is produced via hydrogen-fuel-cells. A patent is pending.
       Zhang’s work on "Characterization of heterogeneous cellulose properties impacting enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis" is supported by Oak Ridge Associated Universities; "Investigating the relationship between characteristics of heterogeneous cellulose and cellulase activities" is supported by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, and research on the fundamental aspects of cellulose utilization by Clostridium thermocellum, in collaboration with Lee Lynd at Dartmouth College, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. Zhang is also researching biomolecular engineering of bacterial cellulases for ethanol and biochemical production.



Walter O'Brien

Walter O'Brien, the J. Bernard Jones Professor in Mechanical Engineering, does modeling and simulation of dynamic turbine engine performance, including research to develop hydrogen-powered gas turbines. His group (Students Joseph Homitz and David Sykes, O'Brien, Associate Professor Uri Vandsburger, and Research Associate Steve Lepera) has invented “Premixing Injectors for Gaseous Hydrogen Combustion in Gas Turbines" (VTIP Disclosure number 06.047).



Gary Evans

Gary Evans, director of Virginia Tech’s Natural Resources’ Distance Learning Program in Northern Virginia, has been a member of the executive board of the Fuel Cell Propulsion Institute, which he helped form in 1994. While Evans' interests were in applications of fuel-cell-powered vehicles for natural resources heavy equipment, most of the funding came from the mining and transportation industries and continues to this day. Along with the Fuel Cell Propulsion Institute, the Fuel Cell Institute board formed partnerships with industry and government to successfully develop prototype vehicles. The first success was a fuel-cell powered, underground tunneling locomotive, followed by a skid steer loader. Current research and development is focused on an underground scoop tram. In every case these vehicles proved to have longer duty cycles with no emissions, were rugged, and have held up to 12-hour cycles without significant deterioration to the fuel cell propulsion units. In the transportation sector, the Fuel Cell Institute has completed the development of fuel cell power modules that replace diesel generators on railroad locomotives, under a grant from the Department of Defense. Evans still holds on to a vision of fuel cell powered heavy equipment capable of 12-hour duty cycles in agriculture and forestry activities, running quietly and with no emissions, to meet future alternative energy needs in these industrial areas.


Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson, professor of mechanical engineering, does research on hydrogen and fuel cell technology development for the automotive industry, and vehicle research that considers current petroleum based fuels, and coal or natural gas for synthetic fuels for transportation. He has expertise in modeling, testing, and validation of fuel cell and hybrid electric vehicles. He is the co-director with Michael Ellis and Michael von Spakovsky of the Department of Energy GATE Center for Automotive Fuel Cell Systems, a multidisciplinary graduate automotive engineering program that focuses on technologies critical to the development of fuel-efficient/low-emission vehicles. Nelson teaches university courses in fuel cell systems and hydrogen energy systems, and a SAE international professional development course, "Automotive Fuel Cell Systems."


Jianhua Huang, research scientist, and Donald Baird, the Harry C Wyatt Professor of chemical engineering, invented a “Compression Moldable Composite Bipolar Plates with High Through-plane Conductivity" (VTIP disclosure 05.039). A bipolar plate is one of the key components of PEM fuel cells and must have high electrical conductivity (especially in the through-plane direction), sufficient mechanical integrity, corrosion resistance, low gas permeability, and low-cost in both materials and processing for commercial applications. While polymer composite bipolar plates under development may have many advantages over the traditional graphite or metallic plates, it is a challenge to make a composite plate with both high electrical conductivity and adequate mechanical properties. Huang, Baird, and James McGrath in Chemistry showed in a previous inventions (VTIP disclosure 02.120 and US Patent Application 10/779,804) that wet-lay composite sheet materials containing up to 70 percent graphite could be compression molded to form bipolar plates with excellent mechanical properties, high in-plane electrical conductivity and the potential for rapid manufacturability. The through-plane conductivity of the bipolar plates was, however, not high enough. In this invention, a composite bipolar plate with sandwich structure was developed to improve the through-plane conductivity. In such sandwich bipolar plates, the low-cost reinforcement in the core contribute strength and stiffness which the graphite in the outer layers (channeled parts) offer high through-plane conductivity as well as barrier to H2, O2, water and corrosive chemicals. The half-cell resistance (i.e. the through-plane area specific resistance) of the sandwich bipolar plate could be reduced from 0.027 Ohm-cm2 or higher to 0.010 Ohm-cm2. This value is only half of that (<0.020 Ohm-cm2) required for fuel cells to be used in automobiles. A patent is pending.


Fuel cells convert chemical energy from hydrogen or methanol fuels into electrical energy. Proton exchange membranes (PEMs) use an ion-containing polymer to generate electricity. Protons pass through the membrane and combine with oxygen to create an environmentally neutral water byproduct.

David Dillard, professor, and Scott Case, associate professor in engineering science and mechanics, and Michael Ellis, associate professor in mechanical engineering, are developing methods and models to characterize and predict membrane durability. Their new test procedures being developed for General Motors show considerable promise and the sponsor wants these to be disseminated for widespread usage. They are also conducting durability assessments of fuel cell proton exchange membranes (PEM).


Michael Ellis

Michael Ellis, Doug Nelson, Pavlos Vlachos, and Michael von Spakovsky of Mechanical Engineering; Scott Case, David Dillard, and Jack Lesko of Engineering Science and Mechanics; and James McGrath of Chemistry are studying water transport in operating PEM fuel cells to mitigate flooding and
       Von Spakovsky, Ellis, and Nelson are developing comprehensive macroscopic and microscopic 2-D and 3-D models for high-temperature (solid oxide) and low-temperature (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells. Von Spakovsky and Don Leo, associate director of the Center for Intelligent Material Systems and Structures, are developing enabling design-for-the-environment tools for use in the synthesis/design and operation/control of PEM fuel cell and SO fuel cell technologies.


Tim Long

Tim Long, professor of chemistry, develops new materials for fuel cell membranes.


James McGrath

James McGrath, University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and his group are developing improved fuel cell materials, specifically polymer-based proton exchange membranes. One example is the invention of a high-temperature PEM that could be used as a portable power pack for cell phones and computers. These fuel cells will provide a much longer service life and weigh less than batteries. McGrath and his research team have received multi-million dollar research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and NASA, as well as private support from Nissan Motors. McGrath has presented his research internationally.
       McGrath has received numerous patents and has several pending. He and his former student, Brian Einsla, developed polymer materials for fuel cell proton exchange membranes with improved proton conductivity, resulting in lower resistance in a fuel cell and therefore enhanced performance. “Synthesis and Characterization of Hydroxy-Functionalized Poly(Arylene Ether Sulfone)s and Conversion to Proton Conducting Membranes for Fuel Cells" (VTIP disclosure 04.040) has been exclusively licensed. Earlier inventions also exclusively licensed are “New Multiblock Copolymers Containing Hydrophilic-Hydrophobic Segments for Proton Exchange Membrane" (03.135), invented by McGrath, William L. Harrison, and Hossein Ghassemi; “Aqueous/Alcohol Dispersions of Directly Polymerized Sulfonated Polymers" (02.014), by McGrath and Mike Hickner; and “New Composite Proton Exchange Membrane" (02.013), “A New Polymeric Proton Exchange Membrane-Heteropolyacids" (01.076), and “A New Polymeric Proton Exchange Membrane-Polyimides" (01.077), all by McGrath, Hickner, Feng Wang, Yu-Seung Kim.


Louis Madsen

Louis Madsen, assistant professor in chemistry, studies macromolecular materials using NMR spectroscopy, including transport in fuel cell membranes.


Eva Marand

Eva Marand, associate professor of chemical engineering, is developing nanocomposite membranes for natural gas purification, hydrogen, and other industrial gases separations. The research if funded by the National Science Foundation.


Scott Case, associate professor, and Jack Lesko, professor of engineering science and mechanics, are developing accelerated aging techniques to characterize composites for use as external containment of fuel cells.

David Dillard, professor, Scott Case, associate professor, and Jack Lesko, professor in engineering science and mechanics, and John Dillard, professor of chemistry, are developing methods to characterize fuel cell sealant durability.


Guo-Quan Lu

Guo-Quan Lu, professor of materials science and engineering, and post doctoral associate Jesus Noel Arucan Calata have invented a “New Contact Zinc Material for Solid Oxide Fuel Cell" (VTIP disclosure 05.002). This invention is a contact paste material with high-temperature electrical conductivity that can be used as contact zone material between the cathode and interconnect separator plate of intermediate temperature solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), highly efficient energy generation systems that use hydrocarbon gases to convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy. These SOFCs will use fuel derived from coal to produce energy more cleanly than conventional coal-fired power plants. This material will provide a significant improvement over current electrically conductive contact paste that cures and becomes brittle when the stack is first heated to the operating temperature.

Peizhen Kathy Lu, assistant professor, and Bill Reynolds, professor of materials science and engineering, are working on development of solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) for long-term operation. Like other fuel cells, SOFC convert chemical energy to electrical energy. SOFC use ceramic materials as part of the cell. Material design using ceramics is one of Lu’s areas of expertise. Thermodynamics and structure-property relationships are among Reynolds’ areas of expertise. The "Digital Processing of Solid Oxide Fuel Cells" research project is supported by the Department of Energy.



Al Kornhauser

Al Kornhauser, associate professor of mechanical engineering, does research on direct carbon fuel cells using a circulating molten carbonate electrolyte.
       Modern fuel cell development, with its origins in the space program, has concentrated on compact fuel cell designs in which an immobile electrolyte is contained between porous membrane electrodes. Fuel and oxidizer are supplied to the electrodes on the sides opposite the electrolyte, and all reactions take place on the electrolyte-wetted surfaces of the electrode membrane. This type of cell design is effective for a compact cell using gaseous fuel, but it has three serious limitations for utility-scale power generation using coal:
       1) It cannot be used directly with solid fuel
       2) The membrane electrodes are prone to fouling by ash, and
       3) It does not exhibit good economies of scale - a utility power plant would be made up of a large number of small cells.
       Using a coal gasification plant to provide ash-free gaseous fuel to the fuel cell obviates the first and second limitations, but not the third. The addition of a gasification plant increases cost and reduces efficiency.
       Kornhauser and his student, Ritesh Agarwal, are developing fuel cells that can use solid carbon directly in a circulating liquid electrolyte. They have devised and are analyzing several design concepts that allow for feeding solid fuel and removing ash while the cell is operating. The proposed cells do not require expensive, microscopically-porous membranes or noble metal catalysts. They promise good economies of scale: individual cell size is limited only by truck/rail shipping limits so that a utility plant can be made up of a relatively small number of large cells. In addition to use with coal, cells will be suitable for use with biomass-derived carbon. An intellectual property disclosure has been filed with VTIP and additional disclosures are planned.


Nancy Love

Nancy Love, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is doing research on microbial fuel cells that would convert waste to energy. She and her colleagues are currently building a microbial fuel cell to obtain preliminary data to assist with development of a proposal to the Water Environment Research Foundation.

James McGrath, University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and Scott Case, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics, recently completed a $100,000 sponsored research project that synthesized and characterized improved proton exchange membranes (PEMs) for direct methanol fuel cells.


Danesh Tafti

Danesh Tafti, associate professor of mechanical engineering, studies computational fluid dynamics and heat transfer as applied to engineering systems. A project related to fuel cell technology is enhanced mixing in microreactors for reformed methanol fuel cells. The research is supported by the U.S. Army.