May 13, 1998 Writer: Aaron Hoover
Source: Vernon Roan, Jim Fletcher
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Florida residents will get a preview of what some automakers see as the successor to the internal combustion engine when University of Florida researchers begin touring the state's cities in a rare, fuel cell-powered bus late this year.
UF's mechanical engineering department, which has one of a handful of fuel cell laboratories in the country, was given the bus by the federal government early this year. Researchers spent several months repairing it and will begin displaying it around the state in late fall or winter as part a state-funded project to promote the new technology.
The plans come amid continuing UF research efforts aimed at improving fuel cell systems and ballooning interest in the technology's potential among several big automakers, said UF mechanical engineering Professor Vernon Roan.
Spurred by a series of technical breakthroughs in recent years, major automakers are pouring money into developing fuel cell technology, according to news articles. Ford and Daimler-Benz each have contributed about $400 million to fuel cell research in a joint effort with Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian fuel cell company. Automakers predict fuel cell vehicles could be available as early as 2004, news articles say.
"Lots and lots of things are happening that indicate a worldwide interest, and most of the knowledgeable people are convinced that the next-generation replacement for the internal combustion engine is going to be a fuel cell," Roan said.
Completed in 1993 with help from computer models created at UF, the bus was one of three identical 30-foot prototype city buses built with a roughly $30 million grant primarily from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Roan said. It was sitting unused at a federal lab in Chicago when the DOE agreed to give it to UF for research and demonstration, he said.
Jim Fletcher, a mechanical engineering doctoral student in fuel cell technology, said the bus is 10 percent more efficient than comparable diesel buses -- a first step in what researchers expect will one day be a far more efficient form of transportation.
"We really and truly expect that fuel cells are going to double the fuel efficiency of the best internal combustion engines and in some cases triple it," Roan said.
When the bus's fuel processing system converts methanol to hydrogen, it also produces carbon dioxide, but at lower levels than diesel engines. The bus emits much less hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and particulate matter than diesels, Fletcher said.
Fuel cells create electricity from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The process reverses electrolysis, which many may recall from a high school experiment that involved placing two electrodes in water, passing an electric current through them and collecting the hydrogen and oxygen that bubbled off.
"If you turn the experiment around and put the hydrogen and oxygen in and take the electricity off, you have a fuel cell," Roan said.
The technology has promise in a couple of areas. Fuel cells that use only hydrogen and oxygen don't pollute. Their only emission is water. And fuel cells are more efficient than internal combustion engines because they do not create as much unused heat.
The barrier to using the devices in vehicles is no one knows how to carry enough hydrogen, a light and flammable gas that is difficult to compress, to be useful. "The problem with hydrogen is that it is not a very portable fuel," Roan said.
Earlier this month, researchers at a federal laboratory in Colorado announced they developed a one-step process that uses solar power to convert water into hydrogen. In the long term, the development could bring about solar powered cars. But in the short term, researchers are working on reformers which produce hydrogen aboard vehicles through extracting the gas from methanol or other hydrocarbon fuels -- a process that can release pollutants, though at far lower levels than internal combustion engines, Roan said.
Research at UF's fuel cell lab aims largely at making such fuel cell systems more efficient and less polluting, and integrating them with vehicles, he said. "We're interested in actually putting together the entire thing and making it work," he said.
Researchers want to spend summer and fall ensuring the bus's reliability and developing a presentation to before starting the tours. The project is paid for by a $200,000 grant from the Florida Department of Community Affairs.
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