Exploring Alabama - Fuel Cell Man

Bruce Taterchuk
Bruce Taterchuk

Higher prices at the pump have sparked debates over new ways to power our cars and trucks. And Auburn University wants to help. Imagine driving to the pump and filling up the family car with hydrogen?

Not likely anytime soon.

But someday automakers may add equipment to convert gasoline into hydrogen.... that feeds a fuel cell...that produces electricity...that runs motors...that power the car and triple its miles per gallon. Far-fetched? Not really. But is it practical?

For the answer, I turned to Auburn University and chemical engineer Bruce Taterchuk. He says it could happen. "Right now it's technically possible...very feasible to build a fuel cell," says Taterchuk. "It's still a cost issue for, say, the consumer automotive industry." The key to the system is the fuel cell. "A fuel cell is essentially a battery that allows itself to be mechanically recharged," says Taterchuk. He showed me a 1.2-kilowatt fuel cell. It was a simple metal box about the size of your family computer. It contained a series of 47 plates about a quarter of an inch thick, stacked vertically against one another. There was no space age, high tech look.

The military may put fuel cells to use before you and I do. Thanks to a $3-million grant from Congress, Auburn is developing a plan for the Anniston army depot to convert some of its military vehicles to fuel cell power. "They take care of all their refurbishment and retrofits of their existing fleets to upgrade them...so this ball will be essentially right down the middle of their plate. We're lucky to have this kind of facility here in Alabama."

While fuel cells in cars are in the future, right now they're hard at work providing backup power for communications and computer systems. "A lot of those applications operate on batteries," says Taterchuk. "But should the power be out for an extended period of time...let's say beyond a few hours, that is really the realm of the fuel cell." As Auburn's grad students and faculty members continue their research, their work may be a key factor in making a tank of gas go a lot farther.

Let's hear it for the tigers…in the lab!