FreedomCAR and military applications power fuel cell research

March 6, 2002

Technology shift will drive economic, consumer and educational change

Levi T. Thompson

Dr. Thompson is a leading researcher for fuel-processor and fuel-cell technology, professor of chemical engineering, and associate dean for undergraduate education at the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. He is director of a recently funded $6-million U.S. Department of Energy project to develop low-cost fuel processors to convert hydrocarbons like gasoline and natural gas into hydrogen for proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. These fuels cells are being developed for use in portable electronic devices (e.g., cellular telephones and laptop computers), automobiles and residential power units. He is also co-founder of T/J Technologies, a leader in the design, development and manufacture of advanced materials and electrochemical energy storage and conversion devices like ultracapacitors, batteries and fuel cells. T/J Technologies has been awarded important defense, NASA and Department of Energy grants and contracts, two NIST Advanced Technology Program contracts and a number of industrial contracts. Dr. Thompson is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award and his research has produced more than 200 papers and presentations and six patented technologies.

Selected Q&A

What is the scientific impact of the Bush administration’s new FreedomCAR initiative?

FreedomCAR is a very important endorsement of hydrogen as a fuel-and fuel cells as a power supply- for automobiles. This migration from a very dominant, but aging technology based on fossil fuels, to a relatively new technology with a brighter future, is bound to trigger significant changes for the research and development community, educators, consumers and the economy. Key challenges to accomplishing this mission are developing efficient methods of hydrogen generation, building the necessary infrastructure and enhancing the performance and costs of fuel cells.

“The same technological breakthroughs that will make fuel cells viable for automobiles could also make fuel cells viable for other applications that would benefit from an inexpensive, efficient and mobile power source. We anticipate fuel cells powering everything from cellular telephones and PDAs to homes and major buildings. At the same time, the use of fuel cells will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help reduce pollution and global warming-two of the world’s great challenges.”

Why is the military interested in your research?

“There are a number of reasons why the military is interested in fuel cells. For example, the replacement of batteries with fuel cells could significantly reduce the weight and size of a power supply carried by individual soldiers. Fuel cells not only could allow soldiers to carry a greater food/water supply or ammunition load, but also power additional high-tech devices. Fuel cells are also quieter and have a smaller thermal signature than diesel engines, enhancing the stealth of military vehicles.”

How is your research related to the FreedomCAR and military applications?

“My research focuses on the development of new catalytic materials, hydrocarbon fuel processors and hydrogen fuel cells.

“In simple terms, catalysts accelerate chemical reactions, including those used to produce electricity in fuel cells and convert gasoline into hydrogen-rich gas. One of the key challenges regarding the commercialization of fuel cells is the need for cheaper, more efficient and longer-lasting catalysts. Platinum-group metals are widely used in catalysts and electrocatalysts. While these metals are highly active, they are very expensive and vulnerable to deactivation by impurities, including those in hydrogen feeds to fuel cells. My group is developing alternative catalysts that may be cheaper, more active and more resistant to impurities than presently available catalytic materials.

“One of our larger programs is focused on developing highly efficient and cost-effective, microsystem-based fuel processors. Fuel processors are used to convert inexpensive hydrocarbon fuels like methanol, gasoline and diesel into hydrogen-rich gas for fuel cells. Because ‘filling up’ a car with hydrogen gas will be impractical for the near future, fuel processors could be a key component to FreedomCAR’s success. We are working to develop low-cost fuel processors based on microchannel reactors, new highly active catalysts and microcombustors.”

How should the United States prepare itself for this new technology?

“In my opinion, we need to establish major centers of excellence to advance fuel-cell and hydrogen technologies. These centers, some of which should be at academic institutions, would bring engineers and scientists together to collaborate in research and development activities that have specific goals and timelines driven by the shift to a hydrogen economy.

We also need to start training the next generation of engineers and scientists that will implement the technology and continue to innovate. New technologies will require engineers with different skill sets. I expect the demand for chemical engineers with training in the areas fuel cells and hydrogen technology to rise as fuel-cell technologies develop. Finally, I would focus on educating the public regarding fuel-cell and hydrogen technologies and provide them with a clear picture of the promise, risks, required investment and return on that investment.”

Drawing on his academic, scientific and entrepreneurial background, Dr. Thompson is available to address other timely questions including:


How do fuel cells and fuel processors work?What technical barriers need to be overcome?What are the latest advances regarding fuel processor, fuel cell and hydrogen technologies?


What business opportunities will fuel cells create in the near future?What can consumers expect from fuel cell technologies in the next few years?What barriers to adoption will fuel cells face?

Public Policy/Military

Why is the military interested in fuel cell technology?How has government encouraged fuel cell research and development in the past?What policy decisions would help advance fuel cell research?

For more information, or to schedule an interview with Professor Thompson—

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