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Students receive $250,000 fuel cell from DOE

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 17 - January 22, 1998

As participants in the 1998-99 FutureCar Challenge, Virginia Tech engineering students will receive a hydrogen-powered fuel cell worth $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a new Chevrolet Lumina from General Motors.
DOE contributed two hydrogen-powered fuel cells to the challenge this year. The 14 engineering schools participating in the challenge were invited to submit competing proposals for the fuel cells, and Virginia Tech and Texas Tech University were selected as the recipients.
Sponsored by the Big Three automakers and the DOE, the FutureCar Challenge enables engineering students to help design the next generation of fuel-efficient, low-emissions cars that meet high standards of comfort, safety and consumer satisfaction
This is the second round of the challenge. In 1996, the Virginia Tech entry, a Chevrolet Lumina converted into a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) by a team of more than 50 engineering students, placed best overall for the first year of the first round, and was ranked second best overall during the 1997 phase of the competition.
Doug Nelson, a professor of mechanical engineering and Virginia Tech's Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team faculty advisor, said the team will replace the current Lumina's engine with a battery pack for large power requirements, as they did for the 1996-97 challenge. However, instead of again using a propane-powered engine as backup power, this year the Tech students will devise a method of using the hydrogen-powered fuel cell.
The fuel cell system is an advanced technology that DOE is experimenting with for transportation systems, Nelson said. The greatest advantage of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which produce energy via a chemical reaction rather than combustion, is that they emit no air pollutants. When the Tech students combine a battery pack with the fuel cell in the Lumina, the hybrid vehicle will produce zero emissions.
The fuel cell stack will be supplied by Energy Partners of West Palm Beach, Florida in the late spring of 1998, making preparation for the June, 1998 FutureCar Challenge critical, Nelson said. The Tech team will be responsible for developing the fuel-cell subsystems needed to make an onboard power system, hydrogen fuel storage and supply, air compressor and motor drive, humidification, thermal and water management, DC power processing, and controls.
While the Virginia Tech students developed several safety and convenience modifications to their Lumina for the 1996-97 challenge, as well as perfecting the combination of battery pack and propane engine for power, during the 1998-99 challenge they will focus on making the most effective use of the fuel cell in combination with the battery pack.