Allan Jacobson, Farfel award winner, at forefront of energy alternatives research


Spirit of teamwork earns professor UH's top faculty award

Allan Jacobson, Esther Farfel Award recipient, is pictured with an X-ray photo electron spectrometer, used for surface analysis. Jacobson's passion for science has carried into his classroom and lab where he works with student researchers.

A high-resolution photo is available by contacting Lisa Merkl at or 713-743-8192.

HOUSTON, April 21, 2004 An expert collaborator and leading innovator in the field of materials chemistry, UH Chemistry Professor Allan Jacobson is this year's winner of the Esther Farfel Award, the University of Houston's highest faculty honor.

Carrying with it a cash prize of $10,000, the Farfel Award is described as "a symbol of overall career excellence." A prime example of that has been Jacobson's fuel cell research that has uncovered a bevy of other discoveries. Jacobson was honored last week at a ceremonial dinner, along with other UH educators who had won awards this year. (See related release.)

"This is a very important award for a faculty member at UH, and it is a great honor to have been selected," Jacobson said. "Of course, one of the most important things about this university has been the opportunity to collaborate with people, not only in the chemistry department but in other departments, such as chemical engineering and physics. That has been very important in my research and has made a real difference in the work I do."

In his roles as the Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director for the UH Center for Materials Chemistry, Jacobson has the enviable position of working with a number of talented researchers, as well as participating in his own cutting-edge materials experimentation, that one day will influence electric power generation.

Cheap, clean power has been a top goal for energy researchers, and Jacobson may be well on his way to making it happen. Thoroughly enjoying his work, he seeks out particularly complicated scientific problems and then embarks on a journey to decipher how everything fits together to arrive at various solutions.

While the road to the next generation electric power industry might ultimately include hydrogen-cooled superconducting transmission lines, nuclear energy and renewables, it is, in fact, paved with many hidden treasures. More specifically, the goal of lowering energy costs while reducing chemical and noise pollution is initially leading to such perks as "silent" generators and small oxygen boxes replacing bulky tanks in hospitals, compact and distributed power in urban areas and auxiliary power units for a variety of industries.

"With fuel cells, it's all about reaction rates," Jacobson said. "Chemical reaction rates determine power output, with higher temperatures resulting in faster rates that leads to more power generated. Our goal is to investigate different materials used as components in fuel cells in an attempt to make these reactions work at lower temperatures."

If successful, Jacobson's solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) research has the potential to substantially improve how electricity is generated, making it less expensive and more environmentally friendly. From a cost perspective, a key approach is to reduce the temperature at which SOFCs operate. Intermediate temperature operation has a significant impact on cost by allowing the use of less expensive materials, such as metals, in interconnects and heat exchangers and by increasing reliability. Improvements in the properties of the materials and the development of inexpensive fabrication processes is thus a main focus of Jacobson's research.

Environmental benefits include high-energy conversion efficiency that means generating more power with the same amount of fuel, resulting in less greenhouse gases. Additionally, since fuel cell power generation does not use combustion, pollutants such as nitrogen and sulfur oxides would be reduced. Another benefit with SOFCs is noise reduction. Relying on electrochemical reactions rather than combustion, fuel cells have few moving parts, resulting in the absence of noise. This silence would be particularly beneficial in using SOFCs as back-up power for hospitals and public buildings. In fact, the Central Park Precinct police station in New York City kept going during the mass power outage this past year because of its fuel cell power system. The system was installed because it was less expensive to use the existing natural gas line than to put in more transmission lines. So, the concept of using distributed power in high-rise buildings or even in individual homes, may not be so far off in the future.

Jacobson, however, feels that initial SOFC application will be with auxiliary power units for use in more niche markets. Providing diesel engine powered trucks with fuel cell power units to maintain air conditioning and refrigeration when the vehicle is stationary is in the more immediate future. This would aid in saving fuel and sparing the environment when big-rig drivers switch to such a mode when staying over in rest stops while needing to keep their loads refrigerated.

Perhaps even better known for the work being done with ion-transport membrane reactors, Jacobson and his colleagues at the UH Center for Materials Chemistry have been investigating this cost-effective alternative to conventional methane conversion processes since the mid-1990s. This technology is able to integrate oxygen separation and methane partial oxidation into a single step at a cost savings of 30 percent relative to existing processes.

"This technology is being developed by a number of companies in the United States," Jacobson said. "It's a separation technology that primarily separates oxygen from air at high temperatures by the process of oxygen ion rather than molecule transport. This produces extremely pure oxygen."

A way to simplify how oxygen is made, the ion-transport membranes process could result in a base application to produce ultra high-purity oxygen for use in hospitals, replacing oxygen tanks with small space-saving generators.

An even stronger driver and ultimate commercial goal for this application is its ability to make additional use of the most cost-intensive component of fuel production by integrating it with other high-temperature steps in the process. Simply put, ion-transport membranes reduce the cost of producing oxygen, which is the element needed to convert natural gas to synthetic gas (commonly called syn gas), used in hydrogen production and making liquid fuels. This cost savings could eventually lead to liquid fuels at a price competitive with refined products from oil. Hydrogen production, currently a very expensive proposition, is one of the other main targets for this technology.

Connecting this back to Jacobson's SOFC research, the same types of materials are being investigated for application in both processes in order to obtain improved properties and to make things much more feasible from a cost standpoint. Both of these programs are significantly furthered by recent Department of Energy grants, as well as UH's participation in multiple consortiums with other universities and private-sector corporations.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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