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National Fuel Cell Center Launched with National Science Foundation Award

The University of Massachusetts Amherst will create a new research center focused on the cutting edge of hydrogen fuel cell science, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced, awarding a three-year, $1.5 million grant to the Fueling the Future Chemical Bonding Center. The center is one of only three in the nation funded through the NSF’s chemistry program that focuses on renewable energy, providing UMass Amherst a prominent role in the effort to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

UMass Amherst chemist S. Thayumanavan will lead eight UMass Amherst scientists and one scientist from Yale University in the quest to better understand proton transfer, a critical component of fuel cells. Fuel cells offer a cleaner, more efficient alternative to fossil fuels; by capturing the power of hydrogen, they create a direct current of electricity without carbon dioxide emissions or particulate air pollution. Fuel cells will likely be used for powering portable devices such as computers and cell phones, means of transportation such as automobiles and boats, and perhaps buildings and homes.

The award to the UMass Amherst team also positions the campus to garner $30 million in additional funding, according to the NSF. The initial $1.5 million awards are for a three-year period; centers that demonstrate “high potential” then will be eligible for $15 million more in funding over five years, and another $15 million after that.

“The aim of these centers is to give scientists opportunities to tackle big challenges in chemistry, in an atmosphere that’s flexible and tolerant of risk,” says Katharine Covert, director of the Chemistry Centers Program at the NSF. “We want to encourage very talented people to attack major challenges that also engage the public and have a long-term societal benefit.”

“This investment by the NSF recognizes UMass Amherst as a hub of leading clean energy research,” says Congressman John W. Olver, who recently helped secure $1.6 million in separate funding for UMass Amherst’s Center for Renewable Energy, Science and Technology (MassCREST). “The technologies that are likely to emerge from this important work will stimulate economic development and manufacturing opportunities in the state. This also provides a tremendous opportunity for the Commonwealth to train tomorrow’s workforce.”

The UMass Amherst center will focus on investigating the subatomic particles known as protons and the molecular conditions under which protons get transferred from one molecule to another. Proton transfer is widespread in the biological world, often happening when cells need to get something done. But understanding how proton transfer works and under what conditions also has immediate applications for fuel-cell efficiency.

“A better understanding of proton transfer will allow us to address one of the greatest challenges to moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy,” says UMass Amherst Interim Chancellor Thomas W. Cole, who is also a chemist. “I’m thrilled that our outstanding team of researchers has been selected for this task.”

Fuel cells take advantage of breaking the chemical bonds of a molecule and using the released energy to generate electricity. On one side of a fuel cell, negatively charged electrons are stripped from a gas such as hydrogen. The electrons are attracted to the positive end of the cell, but are forced to travel there via an external circuit, doing useful work—like powering a motor—on the way. The protons also travel to the other side, but do so by passing through a special membrane that divides the cell and is only permeable to protons. Once on the other side of the membrane, the protons reunite with the electrons coming in from the circuit and combine with oxygen to form water, which drains from the cell. Since none of these involve carbon-based molecules, this is one of the cleanest forms of energy.

In theory, as long as there is hydrogen flowing in one end and oxygen in the other, a fuel cell will generate clean electricity. But scientists are still addressing the finer points of fuel-cell efficiency. One stumbling block has been how to best transport hydrogen’s positively charged protons—and only the protons—across the special membrane that divides the cell. Investigating this proton transfer is the charge of the new center.

“Nature has evolved systems for shuttling protons at really impressive rates—it’s happening in our cells all the time. But these molecules cannot be taken out of their native environments and installed onto a fuel cell,” says Thayumanavan. “Our objective is to discover the molecules and materials required to get really efficient proton transfer—which groups are best at donating protons, which are best at accepting them—and how can we optimize the handshake between the donor and the acceptor?”

Such questions don’t raise eyebrows at UMass Amherst—the new center builds on what is already an impressive body of chemical energy research at the campus.Under the umbrella of MassCREST, more than 25 scientists across five departments work on clean energy research, from designing solar cells to using proteins to make fuel.

The center will also have extensive education and outreach at all levels, playing a key role in addressing the human resources needed for the rapidly growing area of renewable energy technology. Graduate and undergraduate students involved in the research will be at the leading edge of a dynamic field. The center will also have a Web-based interactive network that acts as a public portal where educators, students and the public can get accurate information on chemical energy topics. This National Chemical Energy Research Network will also provide an interface between researchers and centers involved in chemical energy research.

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