Fueling up for the future

Allison Remcheck

Chemistry department conducting research on new fuel replacement

With fossil fuels depleting, Yuriy Tolmachev is trying to figure out an alternative to gasoline in cars. Tolmachev researches fuel cells that someday could replace batteries in cars, laptops and cell phones. Tolmachev submitted a proposal to the Nationa

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

In 1874, the science-fiction novel The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne, made an astonishing prediction for the future: one day, hydrogen will be used for power.

And just as Verne predicted the submarine and the spaceship, hydrogen power is indeed the power of the future, through the discovery of fuel cells – a way to convert hydrogen to create energy.

Yuriy Tolmachev, assistant professor of analytical chemistry, is researching this idea at Kent State. One of the main uses of fuel cells will be to replace gasoline-powered engines in automobiles, he said.

Tolmachev said fuel cells are not a new discovery. They were discovered in Sweden in the 1800s, but “there were no applications,” he said.

But now the study of fuel cells is vital, Tolmachev said, because of the depletion of fossil fuels.

A lack of resources

“We have enough oil for 50 years,” he said. “Then we don’t have enough oil left for anything.”

Tolmachev said there was enough natural gas to last 150 years, and enough coal to last from 500 to 1,000 years.

“We don’t have enough fossil fuels left,” he said. “They’re not renewable.”

And they are being depleted rapidly. Tolmachev said it took 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil in the world, but the world will use the next trillion barrels in 30 years.

At Kent State, fuel cell research is growing, Tolmachev said.

Tolmachev has six students researching fuel cells with him, he said.

At Kent State’s Stark campus, there is a two-year program, and Tolmachev recently made a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a four-year program at Kent State. If this program is approved, Kent State will receive $250,000 for fuel cell research.

People who are knowledgeable in fuel cells are in high demand, Tolmachev said. He gets a couple calls a week from employers asking if he has any students knowledgeable about fuel cells.

He said the starting salary in the research and development of fuel cells is $90,000 to $100,000.

Tolmachev’s own advancements in the fuel cell field includes a way to reduce platinum, the same precious metal jewelry is made of, in fuel cells.

He said platinum is used as a catalyst, and five grams of platinum are used in a normal car with a catalytic converter, but 60 grams of platinum will be needed in a fuel cell car. This would add about $6,000 to the price of the car.

There also is a problem with the depletion of platinum.

It is a “precious, rare metal,” Tolmachev said. “We won’t have enough platinum to do it.”

Bob Hoover, chemistry graduate assistant, said the bottom line is fuel cells are both cleaner and more efficient.

“So the important thing is efficiency,” he said. The fuel cell is a lot more efficient than a regular engine.

“The first fuel cell they made was for a space mission,” he said.

An environmental alternative

Evgeny Garanin, a material science graduate assistant, works with Tolmachev researching fuel cells. He said the expense of gasoline will make fuel cells necessary.

Garanin said the fuel cells also are better for the environment.

“When you burn gas,” he said, “a lot of pollution appears, but here it’s just water, no pollution.”

Fuel cells are a way to convert hydrogen into energy. The fuel cells could replace batteries in cars, laptops and even cell phones, Tolmachev said.

Hoover said, “A fuel cell is like a battery, except instead of recharging it, you put in fuel.”

Hoover said fuel cells will also be cheaper.

Tolmachev said it also will be difficult to convince people they should drive a car operated with a fuel cell. He refers to this as a “chicken and the egg” problem, because in order for people to drive a hydrogen-powered car, they will need a hydrogen fueling station. But for hydrogen fueling stations to be a good business investment, people will have to drive hydrogen-powered cars.

Tolmachev said the hydrogen fueling stations “will start in the large cities like Los Angeles,” where there are already five hydrogen fueling stations.

The current process of creating energy through gasoline is inefficient, Tolmachev said, and only achieves about 30 percent efficiency after over a century of research.

Tolmachev said the scientists’ goals are to have fuel cells fit for commercialization by the year 2015. He estimates there will be a complete switch from gasoline to fuel cells, including airplanes, by the year 2050.

Contact science reporter Allison Remcheck at [email protected].