Fuel Cell Engineers Lead the Way to Cleaner Energy The Buzz


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 engineers.

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 cells.

"[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 rapidly."

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 fuel cells.

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, says Vaughn.

"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," says Vaughn.

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 out."

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 (AP) courses.

"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.

Links

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
Keep up to date with the latest industry news