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The technology is not particularly new, and neither is the idea.
But, using hydrogen as an alternative fuel source via a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, also known as a polymer electrolyte membrane, is quickly gaining traction. It is something scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are looking to make efficient and cost-effective enough to see it used on a large-scale basis, first with long-haul 18-wheelers and eventually with everyday vehicles.
Estimates show that simple conversion of the country’s transportation fleet could cut related greenhouse gasses in the United States by 20%.
Rod Borup, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies lab program manager, recently discussed the lab’s progress in its monthly online Science on Tap community outreach reports.
LANL is part of a Department of Energy-funded consortium of five national labs called the Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck, joining with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and â€‹the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Mukund Mukundan, one of the many scientists working locally with Borup on the project, said the lab is trying to reduce the cost of the technology, while bumping its efficiency significantly from where it is at the moment.
Mukundan, who holds a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, is a fellow of the Electrochemical Society and holds seven patents. He has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1999, focusing on making the nation’s transportation and energy sectors cleaner and more efficient.
“The key is understanding the degradation mechanisms,” Mukundan said. “And proposing solutions.”
The drive is to produce a multi-component membrane electrode assembly, which acts as a divider/catalyst between hydrogen and air, that doesn’t deteriorate at the current rate. Additionally, the best material is platinum, which is quite expensive, so finding a cheaper material that can better withstand the generated heat will make a big difference, Mukundan said.
The goal is to reach about 30,000 hours of use, up from the current 5,000 to 8,000 hours, he said, while still maintaining about 400 miles before needing a hydrogen recharge. And to do it in five years or less.
Costs will naturally begin to fall, as well, when the hydrogen infrastructure becomes more common and catches up with expanding demand, he said.
Auto manufacturers are already looking for alternative fuel technologies to help reduce the carbon factor.
“There’s a lot more urgency now,” Mukundan said. “The administration is pushing a lot for this. They do see this as our future. More future companies are looking at this. There’s a lot of excitement around this area, for sure.”
The next talk on July 9 is by Mukundan’s wife, Harshini Mukundan, who is an infectious disease diagnosis expert.