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NMSU research explores hydrogen fuel cell technology

Although common use of automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells may be decades away, research to make them more economical is being conducted now by Shuguang Deng at New Mexico State University.

Shuguang Deng prepares a sample of gasoline for a demonstration of his method of extracting sulfur from fuel. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Prototypes of hydrogen fuel cell automobiles exist, but they are too expensive for practical use. Deng, assistant professor of chemical engineering, is looking for ways to make the expensive components of fuel cells last longer by removing substances that are damaging to them. His research is funded through a seed grant sponsored by WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development.

"A fuel cell is similar to a battery -- it converts chemicals into energy," explained Deng. "The difference between a fuel cell and a battery is that the battery has a life span; when the chemical is used up, it's gone. Fuel cells provide a continual flow of energy."

Deng said hydrogen fuel cells have a higher chemical-to-energy conversion rate than other methods of producing energy, thus they use fewer chemicals. Additionally, they produce fewer pollutants than gasoline-powered automobiles, which produce carbon dioxide and other gasses that contribute to global warming.

Currently, the best technology to produce hydrogen uses fossil fuel. Fossil fuels contain sulfur that damages the platinum catalyst and electrode that cause the chemical conversion into energy in fuel cells. Replacing these precious-metal components is very costly and therein lies one of the major hurdles in fuel cell development for use in automobiles.

Deng's goal is to develop a novel adsorbent that will selectively remove the sulfur from the hydrocarbon fuels that are used to power the fuel cells. Such adsorbents could be incorporated into the workings of automobiles. Perhaps even more beneficial, they could also be used in the refining process, which will be held to new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements in 2006, reducing sulfur content in gasoline from its current level of 330-400 parts per million to 30 ppm. Fuel cells, however, require sulfur content less than 1 ppm to avoid damaging the precious-metal pieces.

Deng is also investigating the development of new materials that will withstand the poisoning of the precious-metal catalyst and electrode.

Deng, who joined the NMSU faculty in August 2003, brings with him an extensive background in fuel cell research. While earning his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati, he developed two processes for synthesis of adsorbents/catalysts. Following his graduation in 1996, he spent seven years developing processes for purification of gasses used in fuel cells for BOC Group in Murray Hill, N.J. His work has resulted in 12 patents and numerous papers.

Deng hopes to launch a fuel cell research center at NMSU. "It's our responsibility to find ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the emissions that result from their use -- for future generations," he said.

Deng is working with the next generation of scientists to advance this technology. Assisting him with his research are chemical engineering graduate students Viswanathan Venkatnarayanan and Mohamad Almezini. Additionally, Deng is teaching two new courses this semester, one on adsorption technologies and the other on fuel cell and hydrogen technology, sponsored and co-taught by WERC.

"WERC is committed to exploring the future of hydrogen fuel cells," WERC Executive Director Abbas Ghassemi said. "I believe that this technology holds great promise as a means to protect our environment and conserve our precious resources. We are pleased to provide Dr. Deng with support in his pursuit of innovative ways to make this technology viable for large-scale use."

The WERC consortium consists of New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech, the University of New Mexico, Dine College, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories and program affiliates. WERC's mission is to develop human resources and technologies that assist government and private companies in addressing environmental issues. For more information about WERC, visit www.werc.net.