UA Little Rock professor receives $500k to improve transportation fuel cells

Dr. Tansel Karabacak. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor has received $500,000 to develop high-performance, cost-effective transportation fuel cells. 

Dr. Tansel Karabacak, professor of physics and astronomy at UA Little Rock, received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. UA Little Rock will provide $100,000 in matching funds.

The main goal of the research is to produce transportation fuel cells that cost less, last longer, and provide more power. The three-year project, “High Performance Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell Electrode Structures,” will run until December 2019.

The funds are part of a more than $3 million grant awarded to a team led by East Hartford, Connecticut-based United Technologies Research Center, a global company designed to nurture innovation in commercial aerospace, defense, and building industries.

In 2016, the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy established the Fuel Cell Consortium for Performance and Durability. The research consortium awarded more than $13 million to fund four projects to improve fuel cell performance and durability.

Vehicles powered by fuel cells use hydrogen gas to fuel an electric motor. Clean energy alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells can reduce carbon emissions, Karabacak said.

The research team will develop a structure to improve polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells. Scientists hope this specific type of fuel cell can be used for mass transit because of their high power density, high energy conversion efficiency, and low or zero carbon emission.

However, the fuel cells currently cannot be used in this manner due to their limited power and poor durability. Karabacak and his team are working with the U.S. Department of Energy to create a solution for this problem.

“From an environmental point, these fuel cells are a big advantage,” he said. “It reduces our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, but there are also challenges. The fuel cell cars on the market are very expensive. To reduce the cost, we need materials of lower cost and longer lifetimes.”

One of the most expensive components of fuels cells is a platinum catalyst. Karabacak and his team will work to decrease the amount of platinum required and increase the performance and durability of transportation fuel cells, thereby decreasing cost and improving the life of fuel cell electric vehicles.

The grant will also fund a postdoctoral researcher and a graduate assistant at UA Little Rock. The researchers will assist Karabacak and also have the opportunity to work with top scientists from universities, national laboratories, and companies in the U.S.

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