A Florida State University engineering professor's innovative research with nanomaterials could one day lead to a new generation of hydrogen fuel cells that are less expensive, smaller, lighter and more durable -- advantages that might make them a viable option for widespread use in automobiles and in military and industrial technology.
Jim P. Zheng is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, as well as a researcher at FSU's Center for Advanced Power Systems. Working with a material known as carbon nanotubes -- essentially a form of carbon that is extraordinarily light and that easily conducts heat or electricity -- he has designed a thin material, or membrane, that could reduce the need for expensive platinum components in hydrogen fuel cells.
"The driving issue involved in mass production of such fuel cells is one of cost," Zheng said. "Current hydrogen fuel cells use a platinum catalyst, making them too expensive to even consider producing on a large scale. However, by using carbon nanotube membranes, which are highly conductive and with unique properties, it might be possible to reduce the amount of platinum that is required. And since the membrane is thinner and lighter than current components, the fuel cell can be smaller and yet still provide the same amount of power."
Known as polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, or PEMFCs, this technology was initially developed for military and spacecraft applications at GE. To date, the technology has been extended to a wider scope of applications, with the potential to power a range of devices from mobile phones and laptops to cars, buses, boats, houses and even spacecraft.
Zheng's research has captured the attention of a technology company that hopes to develop it further. Bing Energy Inc., a manufacturer of state-of-the-art components for PEMFCs based in Chino, Calif., has entered into a commercialization agreement with Florida State that gives it exclusive use of Zheng's patented technology. As part of the agreement, Zheng's team will develop several prototypes of fuel cells employing the carbon nanotube membranes; Bing Energy representatives will then evaluate them to gauge their effectiveness and potential for mass-production.
"What Dr. Zheng has developed is truly the 'better, faster, cheaper' story applied to fuel cells," said Richard Hennek, Bing Energy's vice president for business development. "He has cleverly utilized the latest in nanotechnology to provide a dramatically better solution for the PEM fuel cell. Performance improvements of 40-plus percent, durability improvements of 25 percent, and all at a lower cost make for a compelling story. We at Bing Energy Inc. are truly excited to be working with Dr. Zheng and FSU to bring this technology to the marketplace."
While a commercialization agreement provides no guarantee that a product will ultimately make it to the marketplace, Florida State officials nevertheless expressed satisfaction that university-generated technology was deemed worthy of a formal relationship with Bing Energy Inc.
"What this means is that someone outside the university with significant knowledge in the energy field has recognized the commercial potential of Professor Zheng's work," said John Fraser, director of FSU's Office of Intellectual Property Development and Commercialization. "They're essentially saying, 'We like this technology and we want to license it because we believe it can lead to a significant breakthrough in the production of affordable hydrogen fuel cells.'
"Partnerships like this one between university researchers and outside organizations contribute to Florida State's core mission by helping to develop products and knowledge for the benefit of society," Fraser said.
FSU Vice President for Research Kirby Kemper emphasized the importance of energy research such as Zheng's at a time when the many economic, environmental and national-security issues related to the United States' dependence on oil make headlines every day.
"The ability to put into production a cheaper fuel cell than currently exists on the market has the potential to move society toward the affordable-energy storage and production processes that are needed to make full use of renewable energy sources," Kemper said.