The hydrogen revolution

Research in fuel cell design, durability drives alternative energy field forward

Rendering of Cal State L.A.'s Sustainable Hydrogen Facility, which is currently under construction and due to open later this year.

Cal State L.A.'s Sustainable hydrogen facility will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology, allowing for the production of hydrogen fuel to power a minimum of 15 to 20 vehicles a day. It will be used as both a research and public fueling station.

Building on the University’s achievements in pioneering hydrogen fuel cell-powered flight, Cal State L.A. faculty and students have now set their sights on implementing alternative energy technology along the nation’s roadways.

The race toward a zero-emissions vehicle

Building on its legacy of champion competition vehicles, Cal State L.A.’s College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology (ECST) has been selected to build a zero-emissions vehicle for the “EcoCar2 Plugging In to the Future” international competition.

EcoCar 2 is a three-year U.S. Department of Energy’s competition that provides engineering students the chance to design and build an advanced vehicle that demonstrates cutting-edge automotive technologies. The competition—aimed at educating the next generation of automotive engineers through a hands-on, real-world engineering experience—challenges 16 North American universities to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles without compromising performance, safety or consumer acceptability.

“Our EcoCar 2 team will actively participate in outreach programs promoting the competition and the advanced propulsion technologies it represents. ECST students regularly host K-12 students in a variety of venues, work with the community colleges on joint projects, and cooperate with the local community and industry,” said David Blekhman, an associate professor leading the team.

EcoCar 2 is a unique opportunity for students to be exposed to leading technologies and participate in the development of 21st century automotive industry solutions.

Driven, in part, by the approaching opening of a Sustainable Hydrogen Facility on campus, a multidisciplinary team of investigators is working to improve the durability, expand the use of and develop new means for efficiently producing hydrogen fuel cell power. The collective efforts, faculty say, will help advance the field, improve students’ career opportunities and make Cal State L.A. a key partner in a greener future.

“The hydrogen facility will help to put Cal State L.A. on the map,” Technology Professor Virgil Seaman said, noting that the University’s latest endeavors build upon successes in the design, construction and competition of solar-powered and supermileage vehicles. The University’s mechanical engineering faculty and students are also well-known for successfully piloting one of the country’s first hydrogen fuel-cell powered aircrafts.

“We want to be pioneers. We want to provide our students with the opportunity to see the equipment, collect data and help design solutions to move the industry forward,” Seaman added.

Cal State L.A.’s $4.5 million facility, supported by federal, state and private resources, will be one of only a few stations in the Los Angeles County basin and it will be used as both a research and public fueling station. Equipped with state-of-the-art technology and equipment, the facility will produce a minimum of 60 kilograms of hydrogen daily—or enough fuel to serve 15 to 20 vehicles a day.

“These technologies are on the cusp of a transformation in applied research,” said Associate Professor of Technology David Blekhman, the facility’s principal investigator. “To be a part of moving advanced technology forward is exciting and very rewarding. It’s an invaluable experience.”

Hydrogen fuel cells are a principal piece of a multifaceted research campaign to supplement—and possibly replace—the nation’s use of fossil fuels, especially in transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells, which create electricity through the chemical process of uniting hydrogen and oxygen to make water, are said to be a cleaner, quieter and more efficient source of power. Unlike energy sources that use fossil fuels, the by-products from hydrogen fuel cells are heat and water.

While some applications of hydrogen fuel cells are already in place, Blekhman says there is still a call for more expansive research to improve the technology, increase its efficiency and reduce costs.

Professor David Blekhman works with students on the design of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle.

Utilizing the campus facility as a research center, Blekhman said he plans to have students study hydrogen infrastructure design and production. Graduate student Michael Strada ’07 will also be examining the performance of the campus station, which uses green energy credits to power an electrolyzer that separates water molecules in the creation of hydrogen.

Strada said he returned to campus to complete his master’s degree specifically for the opportunity to work with the hydrogen facility.

“While I had little experience with hydrogen, it is an area that excites me,” Strada said. “I can see this technology being a solution to our energy needs and it’s an area expected to have an extreme amount of growth in the future.

“[CSULA] has given me hands-on experiences in an emerging sector, where people have little to no experience. I believe that will set me apart when I go on to get a job in the alternative energy world,” he added.

Additionally, Strada and his fellow graduate and undergraduate classmates are working to develop calibration meters that can precisely determine the amount of dispensed hydrogen on a per kilogram basis. Other projects include creating a means for generating hydrogen directly with energy from sunlight, building a hydrogen fuel cell car and designing an at-home hydrogen fueling station.

Recently, Cal State L.A. students and faculty were recognized for their efforts in the field with a top 10 finish in a hydrogen student design contest, and a first-place ranking of a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Education Project by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This has been a thrill ride,” Blekhman said. “The research is extremely interdisciplinary, it’s advanced and it’s going to provide our students with a leading edge for employment. All this work would have been impossible without the support by friends, colleagues and administration.”