University of Waterloo engineers have designed effective, fuel efficient hydrogen fuel cell application for vehicles

"Houston, we have a problem."

If you've watched Apollo 13, you've witnessed some of the challenges that faced scientists developing fuel cell technology early on. "The Apollo 13 incident was essentially a fuel cell problem," says Dr. Xianguo Li of the University of Waterloo. "It had worked fine when tested on earth, but they hadn't taken into account the effect gravity would have on water moving through the system. Power eventually died out, and they had no back-up system for generating electricity."

Decades later, here on earth, scientists and engineers have been seeking to overcome another challenge: designing hydrogen fuel cell technology that is both efficient and affordable. Through a collaboration project under the Ontario-China Research and Innovation Fund, Dr. Li and his team have found a solution. Invest in Ontario had the opportunity to visit the University of Waterloo's Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab to learn about their breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology

In 2014, a powerful earthquake struck China's southern province, knocking out virtually all of its power and telecommunications, with the exception of one telecommunications station. "The station had fuel cells with bottled hydrogen for its back-up power generation," explains Dr. Li. "A week was sufficient time for emergency response teams to bring in more hydrogen, so the station was able to continue running in the wake of the disaster."

China's Minister of Science and Technology was so impressed by the story that he formed a committee to ensure that all telecommunications stations developed similar emergency back-up systems. "In this case, the problem with using batteries for back-up power generation is that they discharge themselves when not in use, so trained individuals need to test them regularly. Moreover, batteries are heavy, so they are difficult to transport in the event of a natural disaster." Turning to fuel cell technologies in vehicles, the obvious benefit is zero emissions, but it also takes fuel cell-powered cars only 2-3 minutes to 'recharge,' Dr. Li explains.

University of Waterloo engineers offer new approach to the design of hydrogen fuel cell systems

"Each technology has is strengths and weaknesses in different sets of circumstances," says Dr. Li, who points out that fuel cell technology was first developed by chemists as a one-size-fits-all solution. This is where Dr. Li and his team of engineers can offer a fresh perspective, and they are preparing to unveil it to the world. "When it comes to fuel cells, the challenge is heat and water management. During the design stage you can make it optimal for one condition, but not for the wide range of conditions in which cars operate during city and highway driving. But that is the traditional design," he says grinning.

The Government of Ontario supports research, development and commercialization of vehicles fuelled by alternative energy, including hydrogen fuel cell and electric vehicle technology.

Register with Invest in Ontario to stay tuned for more details about Dr. Li and the University of Waterloo's developments in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

February 23, 2016

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