Putting fuel cells in your hand

Putting fuel cells in your hand

Miniature methanol fuel cells may be a key to providing longer-lasting,
renewable energy

Chemistry Professor Frank Gomez works with graduate fellow Dan Botoaca.Undergraduate Mark Anthony Aguilar holds up a sheet of rust printed on a chip.Faculty and students work in the lab.A fuel cell engine.Professor David Blekhman works with students in the lab.

Trash your cell phone charger, turn on your laptop whenever
and wherever you want, and enjoy an endless stream of songs on your iPod. It’s a
world without flashing batteries and untimely shutdowns, where energy
continuously flows to small, portable electronics.

Sound nice?

Well, that is the dream that a team of Cal State L.A.

faculty and student researchers, brought together in the
Center for Energy and
, are working to realize through the design, fabrication and
testing of miniature direct methanol fuel cells. Such fuel cells, which are
essentially electrochemical engines that convert the chemical energy of methanol
to electricity, can potentially provide five to 10 times more energy per volume
than rechargeable batteries.

Compact, light, efficient, self-supporting and with limited
by-products, microfluidic direct methanol fuel cells “provide more bang for the
buck,” faculty said.

“The research we are doing today could possibly provide
solutions for long-term problems,”
Chemistry Professor Frank Gomez said.
“Developing alternative energy forms is critical, and starting small, as the
research with the microfluidic direct methanol fuel cell does, is the first step
in energy independence.”

Gomez, an experienced researcher in the area of
microfluidics, is joined in this project by faculty colleagues

David Blekhman and
Arturo Pacheco-Vega and student fellows with interests in mechanical
engineering, technology and computer science. Utilizing each team member’s
expertise, the project includes computational studies to design and develop the
most optimized fuel cell, the fabrication of model fuel cells, and testing of

Applying microfluidics technology, which allows for the
precise and accurate manipulation of fluids typically on the sub-milliliter
scale, has also provided the team with the opportunity to test many different
systems and applications without the loss of mass material or time, Gomez

“This has been a great opportunity for me to put to use my
skills in mechanical engineering and chemistry, and to enter into a new,
important field that needs individuals with so many different backgrounds,” said
organic chemistry graduate student Dan Botoaca ’09, who
switched majors as an undergraduate. “This research has given me a lot of
different avenues to pursue.

“It’s one thing to learn from the
book and lectures. It’s another trying to work it out for real in the lab,” he
continued. “It’s all the problem-solving techniques applied in the real world.
You are expected to find the answer and apply the answer.”