The University of Massachusetts-Amherst will soon start to study hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
On Tuesday, they got a $1.5 million (1.01 million EUR), 3-year National Science Foundation grant to tackle one of the technology's most vexing problems: perfecting the tiny membranes inside the fuel cells that are key to making them cheaper and more efficient.
UMass will use the money to fund the research of eight of its scientists and a Yale University collaborator. The work will be headquartered at the school's Massachusetts Center for Renewable Energy, Science and Technology.
NSF officials say the award positions UMass to receive up to $30 million (20 million EUR) more over the next several years as the fuel cell work progresses.
"I'm confident that centers like this are going to change the way we think about chemistry. They're going to change our society, they're going to change our world," said Katharine Covert, director of the NSF's chemistry centers program and one of the officials who announced the grant Tuesday.
The National Science Foundation also has given past awards for alternative energy projects to the University of Washington and to a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.
Hydrogen-powered fuel cells already are in limited use in place of fossil fuels, but they are neither efficient nor inexpensive enough to make them feasible for widespread use.
One problem is the middle membrane of the cell, which has a structure similar to a slice of cake whose baked layers are separated by a strip of icing.
Electrons and protons are stripped from the hydrogen on one side of the fuel cell.
The electrons then are diverted outside the layers along a circuit such as a wire, and their energy is harnessed and used like electricity.
The protons, also pushing to get to the other side, move through the middle membrane. They reunite with the electrons on the other side and combine with oxygen to form water, which drains out.
Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan, UMass' principal investigator, said the key is finding the right membrane substances that let the right particles through at the right speed. Today's gel-like membranes often become dry and brittle and must frequently be replaced, driving up costs.
Creating durable, efficient and cost-effective membranes could make portable fuel cells possible for everything from camping gear to personal music players, computers and cameras.
The cells also could offer power on demand for remote military deployments and cut the nation's dependence on foreign fossil fuels, an important homeland security consideration that helped drive the NSF funding.
"It's the insights next week or next month that will take us to the next step. Each step constantly takes us forward," Thayumanavan said.
Covert said the National Science Foundation recognized the payoff would not be immediate, but that good research - including into the movement of protons - could cut years off the wait for viable fuel cell technology.
"Proton transfer is essential," she said. "If we understand that, we can make anything better."