Continuing our long commitment to helping other universities get started in fuel cell research, SERC has recently begun working to build a fuel cell test station for Professor Neera Jain of Purdue University. As a new professor in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, Neera is establishing a research program to study the operation of a fuel cell co-generation system designed for a home. The fuel cell will provide almost all the electricity needed for the home, while the waste heat generated will be used to heat water and space, resulting in very high overall efficiency.
The test station will be fitted with a Ballard 2.4 kW, water-cooled fuel cell, a programmable electronic load, and three increasingly larger hot water tanks, each fitted with an internal heat exchanger. The cooling water from the stack will be piped to the tank’s exchanger to preheat water for domestic use. Custom software that we develop will enable Neera and her grad students to simulate electricity and hot water load profiles. By varying the profiles and operating conditions and measuring performance, Neera will be able to develop control algorithms for optimum efficiency.
This project with Neera and Purdue is the latest example of SERC’s involvement in technology transfer to other universities and schools. We’ve been doing similar work for almost two decades.
Our work started in 1998 when we were contacted by the Merit Academy, a small charter school near Santa Cruz. The school had obtained a DOE grant to study fuel cell technology and wanted hardware so their students could do experiments. This led to us developing our first Stack-in-a-Box® fuel cell educational tool. Merit students visited our lab and helped assemble the fuel cell and the next March, we delivered it to the school with an associated curriculum. We had lots of fun doing fuel cell calculations and making fuel cell powered milk shakes. Later, the students and their fuel cell travelled to Washington DC to explain hydrogen technology and make ice cream for amazed attendees at the National Hydrogen Association annual meeting.
We’ve continued to build Stack-in-a-Boxes®. They’ve gone to places far and wide—Smith College, Southwestern Community College in North Carolina, Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, SunLine Transit Agency, and we kept one ourselves. It continues to be a wonderful tool for teaching about hydrogen and fuel cell technology and to excite students about science.
That’s how we started; we then branched out into fuel cell test stations. Out of necessity as we developed our fuel cell program, we spent many years building and perfecting our test stations. When Professor Anna Stephanopoulou, director of the University of Michigan’s Lay Automotive Lab, called and inquired about a test station, we agreed to build her a custom station. In the summer of 2002, we travelled to Michigan, installed the station, and trained Anna and her grad students in its use.
Fast forward thirteen years. In addition to Michigan, our test stations are now in use at universities as diverse as Auburn, Kettering, and UC Berkeley. A few years ago, we reached an international audience when we built and installed a test station at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates.
Each of our stations has been customized and has presented us with new challenges and the opportunity to break new ground. The test station for Neera and Purdue is no exception. It is the first station we’ve built that will enable use of fuel cell waste heat and the first to use a commercial fuel cell, not one we’ve built ourselves. And as always, there are new design problems to overcome and new equipment to spec out and procure.
It’s been enjoyable working with Neera to design the station to exactly meet her research needs. We know we’re assisting a new faculty member in getting her research off the ground so that she can help solve important energy problems. It’s what makes our work so interesting and rewarding.