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UCI’s Advanced Power and Energy Program is in the spotlight these days

UCI Program Tests Fuel Cells, Turbines, Electric Cars

The University of California, Irvine, has been studying combustion engines since the 1970s and fuel cells for the past few years. But the university’s research into energy issues has taken on new significance with California’s power crisis.

Officials at UCI’s Advanced Power and Energy Program say no other U.S. schools are doing what they are doing,beta testing of new technology and studying whether gas turbines and fuel cells really can make it in the real world.

“We test products and look at challenges in bringing a product to market,” said Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI. “And we certify those products we’ve tested that were viable.”

The school’s energy program, which counts 10 faculty members plus graduate students, has forged ties with government and industry. Researchers test electric cars made by Toyota Motor Corp., for one.

Program officials said they expect to double the number of faculty members and the number of students working at the center.

Fuel cells, battery-like devices that use hydrogen fuel, are a big focus for UCI.

“They’re far more efficient and they produce no pollutants,” Samuelsen said. “They also can run on renewable fuels like biomass.”

Fuel cells produce only a third to half of the carbon dioxide emissions churned out by traditional combustion turbines for each unit of electricity generated. Automakers and others are working with fuel cells in prototype products.

UCI tests industry-made fuel cells and turbines for a fee that runs anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the number of units being tested and companies involved.

Corporate clients in the combustion turbine testing area include Honeywell International Inc. The fuel cell research center also has done testing for Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp.

Some of the center’s funding comes from government sources, including the Defense Department, the Department of Energy, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Energy Commission.

Industry funds come from General Electric Aircraft Engines, Siemens Westinghouse, Chevron Corp. and Toyota.

Typically the school gets about $6 million each year in contracts and grants while spending about $3 million yearly.

The center has licensed combustion turbine technology to industry through patents that have evolved out of the program and have been adopted by industry.

“One example of this is a next-generation aircraft propulsion system we developed for NASA,” Samuelsen said.

The center also is working on cogeneration, which captures waste heat generated by turbines to create additional electricity for heating or cooling,heat that normally ends up in the air or the ocean as emissions and gases.

Samuelsen said there is a lot of potential for this area in the field of microgeneration, where an office building or hotel has its own microturbine, and uses waste heat to provide hot water throughout the building.

“Also waste heat can be used for space heating and also for air conditioning through a device called an absorption chiller that takes hot exhaust and transforms it into cold water,” he said.

Most energy research is being done outside the U.S., especially in Japan and Western Europe, Samuelsen said.

“There is a higher degree of sensitivity in those countries when it comes to dealing with cutting emissions,” he said. n

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