Berkeley is the top-dog research institution in the University of California system and probably always will be, but UC Riverside has been making a lot of noise recently. Recently, we heard about the Chinese entrepreneur Winston Chung giving $10 million to support cleantech research at the university’s Bourns College of Engineering. Now comes word of a group of engineering students winning honors around the country for their work on creating a more affordable hydrogen fuel cell.
Four undergraduates and one MBA student comprise the team, which grabbed a $10,000 phase one grant in an Environmental Protection Agency competition last May and is in the running for a $75,000 grand prize there; then in January it was one of 10 winners of an American Public Power Association Demonstration of Energy-Efficient Developments award; and most recently placed second in a field of 54 teams from around the world in the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Student Design Contest.
The Riverside team’s key innovation is a “quaternary phosphonium-based hydroxide exchange membrane” that, according to the university, allows the use of catalysts such as nickel or silver. That’s a big deal because these elements are much less expensive – thousands of times less expensive, in fact – than commonly used platinum.
“This is not your normal fuel cell,” said Yushan Yan, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Riverside, who started working with the students back in September 2009. “This is really a new breed.”