cell

Fueled by a cell

Rick E. Rocheleau, HNEI Director
Imagine powering your car with a fuel that doesn’t pollute and will never be depleted.  In a state-of-the-art test lab in downtown Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers are turning such a dream into a revved-up reality.

The Hawai‘i Fuel Cell Test Facility (HFCTF), operated by the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) on the Mānoa campus, opened its doors in 2003 to help turn the 50th State into a world leader in hydrogen power. Today, the secure 4,000-square-foot facility ranks among the best academic laboratories in the nation—concentrating on the testing of fuel cells for commercial and military applications, in keeping with its mission to accelerate their acceptance and deployment.

A fuel cell, according to HNEI Director Rick Rocheleau, is an electrochemical energy conversion device that directly converts chemical energy into electricity without the need for combustion.  “Fuel cells are similar in many ways to a battery,” explains Rocheleau.  “In both, electrons generated at one electrode, circulate in an external circuit to the other producing electrical power which can drive, for example, an electric motor.  However, while battery electrodes are consumed in the process, the fuel and oxidant for fuel cells are supplied from an external source.”

HFCTF primarily focuses its efforts on the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which operates on hydrogen and air or oxygen.  PEM fuel cells can be used for automobiles, for small stationary applications such as back-up power, and defense applications that include unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles.

HFCTF has continued to expand its facilities and capabilities with funding support from its partners, including the Office of Naval Research, the US Department of Energy, and a variety of industry partners..  The test facility started with two test stands in 2003 and now houses a dozen test stands including several for testing of small stacks (ca 5kW).  It also boasts a host of supporting equipment including on-site hydrogen generation, on-line high resolution gas analysis, and sophisticated spatial performance measurements. These advanced capabilities allow for long-term life testing and cell performance characterization over a wide range of operating conditions.

Researchers at HNEI have just completed a large project to understand the impact of fuel contaminants on fuel cell performance, and another to detect and understand the impact of localized non-uniformities in membrane electrode assemblies originating from manufacturing variations. They are now currently working on the effects of contaminants from different sources (in atmospheric air or released from fuel cell system materials) on fuel cell performance and degradation.  Other projects in the works include an evaluation to understand the performance of PEM fuel cell power plants for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles fed with oxygen/nitrogen mixtures, as well as exploring the use of fuel cell technology to separate helium from helium/hydrogen mixtures, in partnership with NASA and Sierra Lobo.

If that’s not enough, future projects for HFCTF researchers also include more fundamental research on catalyst development to increase the expensive platinum catalyst utilization and new techniques to understand the transport of reactants within the porous electrodes of the fuel cell.  In support of this work, HFCTF is acquiring additional testing equipment, including a rotating ring/disc electrode system that precisely controls hydrodynamic conditions and allows the extraction of the intrinsic catalyst performance, and a unique tracer system to precisely measure the amount of product liquid water in flow field channels and gas diffusion electrodes.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is credited for helping to jump-start the facility as part of his position with the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Over the years, he has continued to back the program along with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, both of whom are instrumental in supporting the U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research to allow funding of these valuable research efforts.

The facility continues to seek new projects to advance fuel cell technology for commercial applications and support integration of these technologies in Hawai‘i and beyond. “Commercial interest worldwide for transportation applications and U.S. Department of Defense interest appears very strong,” says Rocheleau.  “In the U.S., General Motors and others in the industry remain very positive about the opportunity for fuel cells to contribute in the energy and transportation sectors.”

For more information on the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility, visit http://www.hnei.hawaii.edu/default.asp.

Top photo:The Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility in downtown Honolulu, where fuel cells for military and commercial applications are tested.

The HFCTF testing area.