Fuel cell engineers are among those leading the way toward cleaner
and more efficient uses of energy.
The combustion engine in a car burns fuel to generate power. But fuel cells
use a chemical reaction. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined.
The result is electricity and water.
It's simple in theory, but very complicated (and still expensive) in practice.
Fuel cell engineers undergo years of training. They conduct research, design
prototypes (working models), design tests and do many other activities.
All of those activities have one common goal: to develop fuel cells that
are safe, reliable, portable and economical enough to be mass-produced for
all kinds of purposes.
Those purposes include powering cars, buses and other vehicles, and providing
backup power for homes and telecommunications towers.
Fuel cell engineers need at least a bachelor of science degree. It is typically
in chemical or mechanical engineering. Those in senior positions normally
have a master's degree or PhD.
"I think, generally speaking, the people that are doing work in this area
tend to have higher level degrees -- master's or PhDs -- because of the phase
of the technology," says Ken Vaughn. He's the chief technology officer for
a fuel cell company.
"It's still an early stage...and that tends to [involve] the more advanced
degrees," says Vaughn. "Now, there are certainly people who don't have those
advanced degrees that get into this industry and go to work for a company
that is focused on this technology.
"There are a number of different aspects to fuel cells," Vaughn adds. "There
are mechanical aspects, there are electrical aspects, there are electrochemical
aspects. And so you can come at it from three or four different specialties
and end up working on a fuel cell technology."
A related career is fuel cell technician. Two years of post-secondary education,
or even less, can be enough to get a job as a fuel cell technician. Many colleges
offer certificates or associate's degrees in this area. Fuel cell technicians
typically test and assemble fuel cells under the supervision of fuel cell
Stark State College of Technology in North Canton, Ohio, is an example
of a college producing fuel cell technicians. It offers an associate's degree
in mechanical engineering technology with a fuel cell option. It also has
a one-year certificate in fuel cell technology.
"I think there's going to be a strong demand," says James Maloney. He's
an instructor of engineering technology at Stark State. "It's probably going
to take a couple more years before we see a lot of commercial use of the fuel
"[For example], Rolls-Royce is about two years from actually producing
theirs in a production line," Maloney adds. "They are producing the fuel cell
systems here in Canton but they're doing it one at a time and they're working
very diligently now to set up a production line...so they can produce them
All of the major automakers have developed prototype fuel cell cars, according
to Fuel Cell Today. The first semi-commercial models are expected to roll
out during the coming decade.
Fuel Cell Today says that NASA was the first to use fuel cells "commercially."
This was in the 1960s during the Apollo space missions. NASA's spacecraft
have flown over 100 missions and operated for over 80,000 hours with alkaline
Vaughn's company develops fuel cells for commercial and military use.
"Our focus is primarily on smaller power, more portable fuel cells," says
Vaughn. "And we today are mostly focused on military applications, things
like unmanned aerial vehicles and robotics, specialty power sources for battlefield
operations. Those are situations where you have a critical need.
"When you're talking life and death, you can sometimes adopt new technology
that wouldn't work in a commercial setting because of cost, but in a life-and-death
situation [it would be worth the cost]," Vaughn adds.
Forklifts and trucks in warehouses are the subject of much fuel cell research,
"It's catching on because people don't want to use gas-powered forklifts
in warehouses anymore because of the fumes and the environmental concerns,"
He explains that companies switched to electric-battery powered vehicles,
but there was a new problem. Recharging the batteries put these vehicles out
of service for a long time. Companies would have to buy extra vehicles to
use while others were recharging.
This is helping the business case for fuel cells.
"You can buy a more expensive fuel cell powered forklift, but it's not
out of service," Vaughn says. "Those big warehousing operations run 24/7,
so the business case for buying a more expensive technology up front can pencil
Students interested in fuel cells should focus on doing well in math and
science. Fuel cell technology is exciting, but very complex.
"The electrochemical aspect [of fuel cells], for example, is really cutting-edge
technology right now," says Vaughn.
"It's some of the most exotic and complicated materials science that's
going on in the world today. So you definitely have to have your foundation
in math and science to do that, or [to do] any of the thermal modeling or
the fluid dynamic modeling that's associated with the mechanical aspects."
Maloney says high school students should focus on taking advanced placement
"They really want to take the chemistry and the physics in high school,
and the mathematics, because that's going to help them along the path doing
this work," says Maloney.
How Fuel Cells Work
Learn about the science behind fuel cells
Careers in the Fuel Cell Industry
Check out job openings for fuel cell engineers and technicians
Fuel Cell Works
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