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.

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 Sustainability, 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 prototypes.

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 explained.

“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.”