Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fuel Cell Research- Making the electric car more affordable and durable

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the seventh of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Brigette Salinas tests a membrane in Dr. Li's lab.
President Obama set a plan to reduce imported oil to one-third by 2025. In his plan, he pushed for increased focus and research on biofuels and other alternatives to gasoline. Right now the costs of alternatives, such as those used in electric cars, are greater than gasoline. However, research like Brigette Salinas’s summer project may make electric cars more affordable and durable.
The fuel cell assembly of an electric car, which replaces the combustion engine in a traditional car, is the most expensive part. This is in part due to its short lifespan and lack of durability, says Dr. DongmeiKatie Li, Brigette’s mentor.
Currently, fuel cells are made by sandwiching a membrane between two pieces of carbon paper. The fuel cell is then heat pressed which weakens the membrane and causes its short lifespan. Brigette is working on assembling the membrane sandwich in a way that does not require heat or pressure, but rather utilizes a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is incredibly versatile and can stick to any surface, says Dr. Li.
In the assembly Brigette is working on, each side of the membrane, or one side of each piece of carbon paper is coated with dopamine. The membrane is then put in a vacuum oven which requires no heat or pressure. After it is set, the membrane is then tested. After the first tests, Brigette and Dr. Li’s students, Phillip Cross and Shibely Saha, have found that this technique is very promising.
“We’re hoping to be able to replace the current device fabrication technique using this new surface chemistry technique so we can increase durability,” Dr. Li says.
This is the first year that Dr. Li has participated in SRAP. She was drawn to the program because of her own background. “I’m a first generation college graduate in my family and I wanted to help students from a similar background,” she says.
Her favorite part of SRAP is interacting with the students, especially students like Brigette who bring new strength to the lab. Brigette and her classmates are the face of the future, in terms of energy and sustainability, and it is programs like this that open up possibilities for the future.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo by Kali S. McCrackin

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