Sub-zero winter mornings offer a challenge to researchers working to make fuel cell powered automobiles a reality — fuel cells need and produce water, and water freezes.Tennessee Tech University’s Cynthia Rice-York has been making progress on a solution for several years. Now, her next leading research proposal has earned her a 2009 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
“Polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, or PEMFCs, are a global contender to replace internal combustion engines in automobiles,” said Rice-York. “But for these fuel cells to be viable, we have to improve their cold-start performance and survivability from sub-zero temperatures. The main issue is these fuel cells must produce water, and water within a fuel cell under subzero conditions has the potential to cause mechanical damage and fuel starvation.”
To meet the power demands of an automobile, hundreds of repeat fuel cells units are stacked and compressed by large end plates that act as thermal sinks. Under sub-zero conditions, water moves toward the end plates and collects and freezes in voids and defects. Water in the wrong place could cause mechanical damage and fuel starvation to the automobile.
“Our goal is directly relevant to commercializing PEMFCs in the auto industry,” said Rice-York. “We’ll investigate design parameters to limit or minimize the negative impact of water moving into undesirable locations during freeze.We want to quantify the impact of environmental factors — relative humidity, thermal gradient and others — on the mobility of water during freeze within these fuel cells.”
Ralph E. Powe Awards provide seed money to allow faculty members in their first two years of tenure track to enhance their research. Rice-York received a $5,000 unrestricted research award that will be matched by the university. Her project was one of 30 proposals chosen from 118 applications.
Oak Ridge Associated Universities, one of the nation’s most respected university consortiums to advance science and education, is 100 members strong. These major research institutions join national laboratories, government agencies and private industry to advance science and education.
Prior to joining TTU last August, Rice-York was a staff research engineer at United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Conn., investigating PMEFCs for commercialization. Rice-York is the first member of Tennessee Tech’s Chemical Engineering Department to receive a Powe Award from ORAU. Previous university winners are Titus Albu (2003), Ben He (2004) and Benjamin Mohr (2007).