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Powering The Future

January 23, 2002

Arthur Nead
Phone: 865-5714

That little rabbit compulsively banging on a drum may soon have some big-time competition, and basic research at Tulane on fuel cells will likely be behind it. Fuel cells, devices that produce electricity from chemical reactions, have been around, in one form or another, since the 19th century.

Researcher Peter Pintauro, professor of chemical engineering, has pioneered new fuel-cell technology, and Tulane has filed a patent for his concept. Pintauro's current research concentrates on fuel cells that use methanol, also known as wood alcohol, as a fuel, and he expects that his research will result in the development of an economical and more efficient replacement for ordinary batteries.

Manufacturers of electronic items are particularly interested in the fact that fuel cells produce more electricity than batteries and can run longer. In the fuel-cell laboratory of the Lindy Boggs Center, Pintauro displays a small test version of a fuel cell. It consists of two machined metal plate current collectors that are clamped together with a membrane of polymer plastic sandwiched in between. That membrane is crucial to the operation of the fuel cell, and creating a membrane material that will work with methanol has been the focus of Pintauro's research. Visionaries have long hoped that fuel cells will provide a cleaner and cheaper way of producing electricity.

One of the great success stories for fuel cells is their use during the last few decades by NASA to generate electrical power for its Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle spacecraft. Those fuel cells, which used pure hydrogen as a fuel, were expensive to make and run, however.

Before they can get into general use, researchers must solve the problem of how to produce a cheap, safe and reliable fuel cell. Batteries have filled this niche up to now. With the proliferation of cell phones, laptop computers and other portable electronic devices, our mobile consumer society relies increasingly on batteries as an inexpensive, portable electrical power source.

"Batteries and fuel cells are very similar," says Pintauro. "They both produce electricity from chemical reactions. Batteries combine two chemical substances, a fuel and an oxidant, within a single casing, he explains. When all the fuel is used up, the battery is dead. By contrast, fuel cells operate with a constant flow of new fuel."
 
"It has a separate fuel tank," Pintauro says. So the length of time the fuel cell will operate will depend on the size of the fuel tank. A lot of researchers have tried to develop fuel cells for electric cars. "I think that's pretty far off," says Pintauro, "because they're still too expensive."

He believes that the first widespread commercial application for fuel cells will be in the portable electronics business. "Fuel cells offer the consumer a real difference in performance without having to pay an extraordinary price for it," says Pintauro.

Citing one example of the growing interest in fuel cells, Pintauro notes that there isn't a battery for laptop computers that will last for more that about three hours. Computer companies are looking for a power source that will last at least 10 hours, and Pintauro believes fuel cells can do the job.

"Dr. Pintauro is a researcher who has an interesting crossover from the basic research he conducts to possible applications that would benefit the public," says Carla Fishman, executive director of research administration and technology development.

In other words, his research translates from initial proof of concept to potential products or processes and there is commercial interest in what he does. Pintauro, who was awarded the School of Engineering's first Outstanding Researcher Award on Nov. 15, was instrumental in preparing the fuel-cell membrane patent application.

"There's real rigor involved in applying for and getting a patent issued, and Dr. Pintauro is very good at it," says Fishman. "He is really a bit of a Renaissance man. He loves to teach, he's an outstanding researcher, and he's willing to spend time on translating that research into the commercial sector."

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