UCLA Among First Educational Institutions to Provide Students Hands-On Experience With Fuel Cell Vehicles

A team of chemical engineers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science are studying the next generation of cutting-edge vehicles that could make for a cleaner environment – hydrogen fuel cell cars.

With two brand new F-Cell vehicles donated to the School this month from DaimlerChrysler, researchers, led by chemical and biomolecular engineering chair Vasilios Manousiouthakis and professor William Van Vorst, will be taking an even closer look at this zero-emission technology by gathering data on the active daily use of the vehicles. UCLA is one of the first educational institutions to provide students with hands-on experience with fuel cell vehicles.

Hydrogen cars are electric vehicles that generate power by combining hydrogen and oxygen inside a fuel cell. As hydrogen molecules enter the fuel cell, they pass through diffusion layers, and undergo surface catalytic reactions to become charged hydrogen ions. The ions pass through a synthetic polymer membrane, called a proton exchange membrane, and react on the other side with oxygen from the air to form water — creating in the process an electric current that powers the car’s electric engine. Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, fuel cell vehicles emit only water as exhaust.

The entire fuel cell system in the cars donated to UCLA is housed in the floor of the vehicle, leaving full use of the passenger and cargo spaces. The current cars have a range of approximately 100 miles and a top speed of 85 mph. The electric motor develops 88 hp (65 kW), enabling an acceleration speed from 0 to 60 mph in 14 seconds. The stack is developed by DaimlerChrysler’s cooperation partner, Ballard Power Systems.

“Working with UCLA helps ensure the future of fuel cell technology,” said Mark Chernoby, Vice President, Advance Vehicle Engineering – Chrysler Group. “Today’s students may be tomorrow’s fuel cell engineers.”

To support the study of this new technology, UCLA last year formed the Hydrogen Engineering Research Consortium (HERC), which aims at accelerating the onset of the hydrogen economy through the development and demonstration of technologies for the production, storage, transportation and use of hydrogen.

Research in hydrogen-powered vehicles has a long history at UCLA. In the early 1970s, a group of students working under the direction of the late professor Al Bush converted a car to hydrogen fuel usage, and placed first in a national Urban Vehicle Design Contest. Under Van Vorst, graduate work with hydrogen as an internal combustion engine fuel continued throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Van Vorst regards the successful conversion of a vehicle to operate with liquid hydrogen as a noteworthy development in the field.

DaimlerChrysler has been involved in this hydrogen fuel cell technology for more than 10 years. Through it’s DOE Controlled Hydrogen Fleet and Infrastructure Demonstration and Validation Project, is placing fuel cell vehicles in the hands of customers who can provide valuable feedback about performance under different conditions. The company is currently testing over 100 fuel cell vehicles under varying weather, traffic conditions and driving styles in different locations worldwide. BP is the energy partner of DaimlerChrysler in the project. BP recently opened a hydrogen refueling station in Southfield, Michigan, with DTE Energy Company. Another station has been opened in a cooperative effort between BP and Praxair at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Fuel cell vehicles are part of DaimlerChrysler’s advanced propulsion technology umbrella, which also includes exceptionally efficient gasoline engines, advanced diesels, alternative fuels and hybrid powertrain systems.

For additional information on Professor Manousiouthakis’ research, please visit http://www.chemeng.ucla.edu/vasilios-manousiouthakis/.

Main Image: Peter Friebe, Professor Vasilios Manousiouthakis, Dean Vijay K. Dhir, Wolfgang Weiss, and Joseph Impullitti with one of the donated F-Cell vehicles.