The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Huber Group Creates New PEM Fuel Cell Technology for Renewable Fuels

George Huber, the Armstrong Professional Development Professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Chemical Engineering Department, has received $25,000 from the university’s Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property (CVIP) office to help commercialize a “proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology” capable of producing renewable fuels and other chemicals from biomass, electricity, and water. With time, PEM fuel cells could prove to be an economical and efficient power source to replace the gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines.

“The advantage of our approach is that it does not require any expensive high pressure hydrogen,” says Dr. Huber.

A key challenge in commercializing PEM fuel cells, which were first used during the NASA Gemini program in the 1960s, would be to get around the need for hydrogen as fuel for the cells. The hydrogen permeable membrane in the fuel cell being studied by Huber’s lab will permit water, methanol, and other compounds to be used as the source of hydrogen, which can significantly reduce the cost by eliminating the use of high-pressure gaseous hydrogen.

The cost of hydrogen varies significantly with location, ranging from $1 per kilogram near petroleum refineries to $100 per kilogram in remote locations.

The research is being carried out by Ph.D. candidate Sara Green, under the direction of Huber and Research Assistant Professor Geoff Tompsett. The object is to develop an electrochemical reactor system that utilizes PEM fuel cell technology, operating in reverse, to produce renewable fuels and chemicals from biomass, electricity, and water. The use of PEM fuel cell technology will allow the electrochemical reactor to selectively produce liquid fuels by controlling the applied voltage.

“The major engineering barriers to commercialization include three main areas,” says Dr. Tompsett, “namely catalyst activity, cell stability, and system design.”

The CVIP funding will address these barriers by helping to fund Green, her work, and the necessary supplies for the next year.

Another key advantage of this technology is that 30 percent more renewable fuel is produced, per carbohydrate, than in other biofuel technologies such as fermentation of sugars to ethanol. 

Electrocatalysis in a PEM fuel cell has significant commercial potential because it is an energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and economically competitive technology for selectively generating liquid fuels and chemicals through the conversion of electrical energy to chemical energy. (April 2011)