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Engineering students win award from National Clean Energy Contest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( -- A team of University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering undergraduate students received national honors Wednesday for the third time in the past year for their research aimed at generating hydrogen and developing clean, affordable fuel cells to generate electricity.

The students - Jason Skovgland, Joon-Bok Lee, Christian Contreras and Marcus Chiu, all fourth-year chemical engineering majors, and Joshua Goins, an MBA student - placed second against 54 teams from throughout the world in a Department of Energy contest in Washington, D.C. The team won for their design for a residential hydrogen fueling system for a hydrogen vehicle in a single family home.

"It's thrilling to be honored, especially when you are competing against students at top universities like Harvard and Princeton," said Contreras, a graduate of Cathedral City High School.

In January, the American Public Power Association awarded the team one of 10 Demonstration of Energy-Efficient Developments (DEED) awards.

In May 2010, the students received a $10,000 phase one grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (EPA P3). In April, the students will return to Washington, D.C. to find out if they won the $75,000 phase two grant.

"It's really remarkable what these students have accomplished," said Kawai Tam, the students' advisor and a lecturer at the Bourns College of Engineering. "This one team has won the most awards in the history of our chemical and environmental engineering department."

Under the guidance of Tam and Yushan Yan, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering, the students started work on the project in September 2009 for the EPA P3 competition. They were looking for an efficient, affordable and green way to bring electricity to the quarter of the world's population that lives without it.

Sunlight is one of the most promising sources of untapped energy. And, it is clean and seemingly limitless. However, the cost per watt of power generated from sunlight is five to 10 times more expensive compared to fossil fuels.

Part of the added cost is attributed to difficulties in storing energy collected from the sun so that it can be used at night, when there is no sunlight. The fuel cell holds promise in solving this problem.

At its core, a fuel cell requires hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity with water as the only byproduct.

An electrolyzer conducts this reaction in reverse, with energy being used to revert water to hydrogen and oxygen.

The UC Riverside students' research focuses on combining the fuel cell and electrolyzer into what they call a regenerative hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cell system.

The electrolyzer splits water to generate hydrogen and the fuel cell generate power using the hydrogen. The water byproduct created by the fuel cell is spit back in the electrolyzer and the process starts again.

The key innovation is a newly developed quaternary phosphonium-based hydroxide exchange membrane that allows use of catalysts such as nickel or silver, which are thousands of times less expensive than platinum, a catalyst now commonly used.

By combining the membrane with a fuel cell/electrolyzer set up, a commercial prototype may only be a few years away. The students are now working on developing a prototype.

"This is not your normal fuel cell," Yan said. "This is really a new breed."


Contact: Sean Nealon
University of California - Riverside

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