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DOE awards grant to establish
engineering center, graduate program

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 09 - October 22, 1998

Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has announced that Virginia Tech is among the recipients of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants to establish Graduate Automotive Technology Education (GATE) Centers of Excellence.

DOE's goal in awarding the competitive GATE grants is to enlist the help of graduate students and faculty members to work with industry in developing environmentally safe and ultra fuel-efficient cars of the future. The grants will enable the nine schools selected to offer a graduate degree in engineering with a focus on one of five advanced automotive technologies--fuel cells, lightweight materials, direct-injection diesel engines, advance energy storage, and hybrid electric-drive trains and control systems.

At Virginia Tech, Mechanical Engineering Professor Doug Nelson will head up the GATE center and a graduate program in fuel-cell research. The GATE grant will enable Nelson and faculty colleagues to develop a new graduate course in fuel-cell systems and will help establish a multi-disciplinary Automotive Fuel Cell Systems Laboratory.
Faculty members and students associated with the center and laboratory will study fuel-cell propulsion systems performance, efficiency, manufacturing, recycling, safety, cost, reliability/durability, and aging/degradation. Nelson said the center also will initiate an industry-affiliates program to help direct, fund and use the resulting research.
Under GATE, each of the nine universities--Virginia Tech, California-Davis, Maryland, Michigan at Dearborn, Michigan Technological, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee, and West Virginia--will receive up to $200,000 over two years to develop their curriculum and laboratory projects. In addition, DOE will give each school about $100,000 annually for at least three years to fund fellowships for students pursuing graduate-engineering degrees. Nelson said four or five GATE fellowships will be awarded each year at Tech.
Earlier this year, DOE donated a $250,000 fuel cell to the Tech Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT) for use in the national 1999 FutureCar Competition and for other student and faculty research. Nelson, who serves as adviser for the HEVT, and faculty members at Tech's Energy Management Institute (EMI) also have received funding from the university's ASPIRES program for a fuel-cell testing lab. Nelson will conduct research on fuel cells for transportation applications and EMI faculty members will study power-utility applications.
Fuel cells were invented more than a century ago, and while their mechanical, economic and environmental advantages are well known, they still are expensive to produce. According to Nelson, the major focus of current research into the use of fuel-cell systems for transportation is to determine the long-term reliability of affordable fuel cells for passenger vehicles.