Powering the future


Hydrogen fuel cell research center seeks answers to America's energy questions

Led by physicist Dr. Mary Helen McCay, nine Florida Institute of Technology scientists and engineers are joining forces to create the university's first hydrogen fuel cell research center. Boosted by a $900,000 federal appropriation made possible by U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon and NASA, the new center brings together researchers from a variety of professional backgrounds.

McCay, a specialist in the material sciences and metallurgy, said it is this diversity that will make the center unique. "The real strength of our group is that it is truly interdisciplinary," she said. "We have formed because of a common interest in hydrogen. In any given meeting we'll have an aeronautical scientist sitting next to a chemical engineer, speaking with an electrical engineer. You have people who look at a problem from all different angles, and I think this ability will make the group successful."

The new center's faculty members come from the College of Engineering, the College of Science and Liberal Arts and the School of Aeronautics. The members include Dr. Jim Brenner, associate professor of chemical engineering; Dr. William Chepolis, associate professor of aeronautics; Dr. Susan Earles, assistant professor of electrical engineering; Dr. Barry Grossman, professor of electrical engineering; Dr. Paul Jennings, department head of chemical engineering; Dr. Paavo Sepri, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Dr. John Thomas, research professor in biological sciences and Dr. Manolis Tomadakis, associate professor of chemical engineering. The group's mandate was delivered by Congressman Weldon.

"I'm pleased to support this effort," said Rep. Weldon. "Florida Tech's expertise will be very useful as we try to move away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil and develop a hydrogen-based economy."

For McCay, the mission is to make a difference in the nation's pursuit of new mainstream energy sources. "We want to take this funding and build a sound foundation to become a major player in hydrogen-related and fuel cell-related technology," she said. "We've long had the faculty expertise in a number of important areas, but this funding will allow us to focus our collective efforts."

First on the agenda is, among other things, providing the center with new tools to take on the task at hand. For example, Grossman will be able to purchase new fiber optics equipment to aid in this aspect of the center's research.

Although the first year's funding will enable the still unnamed center to get up and running, McCay would like to secure at least three years of federal funding for the center.

"Of course, we would never say no (to more), but three years is the minimum to get things to a point where the center can stand on its own."

The first project for the center will be the completion of the university's E-Plane, an airplane that flies using power from hydrogen fuel cells. The student-driven project, once completed, will represent a bold stroke in aeronautics and for the center as well.

"A successful E-Plane will demonstrate that we are able to pool together our expertise and solve complex problems," McCay said. McCay said she hopes the center's faculty will use the next three years to learn from each other all aspects of hydrogen fuel cells. In the long-term, she sees the center becoming a valuable national resource.

"We look forward to helping people with their particular problems with hydrogen fuel cell technology. We know we can make a long-term difference for the country, and that's exciting."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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