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UCR Intensifies Fuel Cell Research for Next Generation of Cars

UCR Intensifies Fuel Cell Research for Next Generation of Cars

(January 11, 2002)

The Bush administration and domestic automakers have launched a partnership to encourage the growth of hydrogen fuel cells to develop motor vehicle engine and power systems that will eventually replace the internal combustion engine. The program, called 'Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research,' replaces the Clinton administration's program 'Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle' that sought to develop a vehicle that could attain 80 miles per gallon fuel efficiency.

The College of Engineering -- Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) at the University of California, Riverside is recognized worldwide as a premier institute for hydrogen research related to engines. In the hydrogen-fueled engine, hydrogen is burned with excess air to produce high engine efficiency and near zero emissions. Because of hydrogen's wide flammability range, it can be burned over a wide range of air/fuel ratios, similar to diesel engines. Unlike diesel engines, however, its exhaust product is mainly water vapor.

'The hydrogen-fueled engine research is important because it allows for a comparison with fuel cell vehicles as they are developed,' says James Heffel, who conducts research and development activities in the area of advanced vehicle engineering at CE-CERT. 'The efficiency of the fuel cell vehicle may not be as high as it is claimed to be once it is in its final production form. Fuel cells typically achieve efficiencies in the low 40s percents while hydrogen engines are typically in the mid-30s percents -- however at significantly lower cost.'

The Bush administration's new fuel cell program has spurred UCR to intensify its research into fuel cell vehicles. Indeed, Yushan Yan, assistant professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at UCR and research faculty at CE-CERT, is already conducting research into high-temperature proton conductive membranes that are used in fuel cells. His research, sponsored by the California Energy Commission and the Riverside Public Utilities, aims to show that high-temperature membranes can significantly improve the performance of a fuel cell and at the same time reduce its cost.

'At the moment, the cost of a fuel cell engine is many times that of an internal combustion engine,' Yan said. 'At UCR we are working on key fuel-cell technology which will likely help to significantly bring down the cost of a fuel-cell engine. At present, the commercial production of cars with fuel cell engines is probably still a decade, maybe even decades, away.'

Fuel cells convert oxygen from the air and stored hydrogen to water and generate electricity without combustion, and are quiet, effective and reliable. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas aboard vehicles, or pure hydrogen can be used.

'Whether the hydrogen vehicles of the future is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell or a hydrogen internal combustion engine, or both, remains to be seen,' Heffel said. 'In any case, a new hydrogen refueling infrastructure will be needed. To meet this need, CE-CERT is currently working with local, State and Federal agencies. We plan to get a prototype hydrogen infrastructure sited in Riverside.'

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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