In the News Archives

UC Irvine School of Engineering Opens Nation's First Major Fuel Cell Research Center

The National Fuel Cell Research Center Will Advance the Commercialization of Fuel Cell Technology; U.S. Secretary of Energy Federico Pena and California Energy Commission Chair William J. Keese are Expected to Participate in Dedication on Feb. 25.

Heralding one of the most comprehensive approaches to harnessing the enormous potential of fuel cell technology, the University of California, Irvine today announced the opening of the nation's first major fuel cell research center at its School of Engineering.

The National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC) has been established within the university's Combustion Laboratory for the development and deployment of advanced power generation related to fuel cell technology. The center will provide a unique environment for advancing this technology, which, according to experts, could become the principal next-generation source of energy. In addition, the NFCRC is designed and organized to foster the creation and growth of strategic research alliances among business, governmental and academic entities.

Approximately 200 community and energy industry leaders are expected to attend the center's dedication ceremony at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 25, in the Engineering Gateway Plaza at the UCI School of Engineering. Special guest speakers are expected to include U.S. Secretary of Energy Federico Pena, California Energy Commission Chair William J. Keese, Southern California Edison President and COO Stephen S. Frank, and UCI Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening. Guided tours of the center will be offered immediately following the ceremony.

"Can energy be generated to serve the world's rapidly growing need for power without polluting the atmosphere and being prohibitively expensive?" said UCI Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening. "Fuel cell technology shows tremendous promise of answering the question positively, but what is missing is the ability to overcome the technical impediments to the commercialization of fuel cells. The multidisciplinary approach employed by the NFCRC creates the optimum environment to develop solutions to those impediments."

Although fuel cells have been in existence since 1839, recent technological and scientific advances have turned them into serious options for widespread practical use. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of a fuel directly to usable energy, such as electricity and heat, without combustion as an intermediate step. They are similar to batteries, which also convert energy that is stored in chemical form into electricity. In contrast to batteries, however, fuel cells oxidize externally supplied fuel and therefore do not require recharging.

"On their own, fuel cells can achieve efficiency levels exceeding 60 percent, meaning that less than 40 percent of the energy produced is not captured for use," said UCI Professor of Engineering Scott Samuelsen, director of the NFCRC and the UCI Combustion Laboratory. "This is substantially higher than other energy conversion systems, which typically have efficiencies of only 35 percent or less, allowing as much as 65 percent of energy generated to escape unused. We can project increased efficiency levels of up to 80 percent when fuel cells are joined with gas turbines. And, unlike other conversion systems, emissions from fuel cells are virtually free of pollutants, making them one of the most environmentally safe sources of energy available."

Fuel cells can be effectively employed across the full spectrum of applications. In addition to large electrical generation units, fuel cells are suitable for local generation of electricity and heat for residential and commercial use. In transportation, fuel cells are emerging as the future "power plant" for automobiles, buses, trucks, trains, ultimately even aircraft.

Someday, Samuelsen predicts, fuel cells could replace the massive infrastructures now necessary to provide power to consumers throughout the world, making the monolith power generation facilities now used as sources of distributed power the dinosaurs of the 21st century.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission (CEC) have recognized the significance of the NFCRC in bringing government agencies, business and academia together to develop effective public-private alliances -- in the case of the NFCRC, to develop advanced sources of power generation.

"We are pleased that the UC Irvine National Fuel Cell Research Center has the commitment of many public and private partners in developing a technology that will help meet the needs of the competitive energy market," said California Energy Commission Chair William J. Keese. "We strongly support the technology transfer and education elements, which are fully consistent with the Energy Commission's goal of expanding consumer choice."

The NFCRC originally was established in 1992 at Southern California Edison's Highgrove Generating Station in Riverside County, Calif. Its purpose was to demonstrate and evaluate fuel cell technologies. Edison and UCI officials recognized that this could best be done in a research university environment, and, in March 1997, Edison transferred to UCI all rights and obligations of the NFCRC. The agreement included the relocation to the campus of the Westinghouse 25-killowat fuel cell operating at Edison's Highgrove station.

"The National Fuel Cell Research Center is a focal point for research education, information and product development for advanced power generation related to fuel cell technology," said Stephen Frank, president and COO of Southern California Edison. "The center will demonstrate and evaluate fuel cell technologies and their application in the marketplace. Edison is pleased to support UCI as a leading source for new technologies that demonstrate solutions to energy and environmental challenges facing business and industry."

Several key factors contributed to the decision to establish the NFCRC at UCI, among them the university's position as an internationally recognized research institution in gas turbine combustion. The university's ability to collaborate successfully with regional, state and federal agencies -- as well as with domestic and international industry -- in the energy arena also played a key role.

"Collaborative alliances are crucial to the development of solutions to the world's energy needs, but companies in the business of developing products to that end need a neutral environment in which to conduct their research, an environment in which their proprietary interests will be protected. The university provides this," Samuelsen said.

The NFCRC encompasses four key programs: Beta testing, the long-term testing of product prototypes, which is key to developing products that will become viable for practical use.

Basic and applied research to develop technical solutions to problems associated with the development and demonstration of fuel cell technologies.

Technology transfer, or creating an environment conducive to information exchange between academia, industry and the market to facilitate the commercialization of fuel cell technologies.

Education and training at the undergraduate and graduate levels within the university and for the technical and business community. Outreach to elementary and high school students is included as well.

In addition to staff, faculty researchers and students, the NFCRC structure includes a membership component open to energy-related organizations. It includes three committees to help ensure viability and effectiveness.

The Technical Advisory Committee addresses such issues as the types of fuel cell technologies to be studied and developed, the approach to testing and research, the integration of market forces and boundary considerations into development efforts, and research and beta testing protocols.

The Information Advisory Committee addresses the integration of market forces, societal perceptions and other external considerations related to research and development and beta testing protocols. It also oversees the education and technology transfer components of the center, and is responsible for directing and promoting public outreach, industrial outreach, and graduate, undergraduate and K-12 education activities.

The Mission Advisory Committee addresses issues related to trends in energy utilization, trends in the marketplace and regulatory trends in order to ensure that the technical component of the NFCRC program is well grounded.

In recent years, UCI has emerged as one of the leading research institutions in the nation. U.S. News recently ranked UCI ninth among all public universities in the nation. In addition, U.S. News ranked four of the university's graduate programs -- including engineering -- among the best in the nation. In 1995, UCI became the first public university with faculty receiving two Nobel Prizes in two different fields in the same year.

Additional information on the NFCRC and the UCI Combustion Laboratory may contact Jack Brouwer, associate director of the NFCRC, at 714.824.1999.

Feb. 19, 1998