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Accelerating an Energy Revolution

Inventions to reduce our reliance on oil-based fuels are paving the way for additional advancements that promise to transform the transportation industry into a cleaner and more sustainable and efficient enterprise.

Fuqiang Liu

POWERING GREENER CARS

Fuqiang Liu wants to build a better electric automobile. The materials science and engineering assistant professor believes that current technology, while effective, is not the most efficient or consumer-friendly option. Instead, he proposes a new energy source: alkaline polymer fuel cells.

"Fuel cells are clean, efficient, green power sources with zero emission," Dr. Liu says. "They provide a final solution to emerging global warming and energy shortage issues."

Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in fuels—like hydrogen, methanol, and ethanol—into electricity. Traditionally, alkaline fuel cells have employed liquid alkaline electrolytes containing metal hydroxides. But there are practical difficulties involved with using liquids that aren't present with other materials. To avoid these, Liu and his research group instead are using ion-conducting membranes to create their cells by synthesizing nano-catalysts and novel guanidine polymers.

He believes these fuel cells will be more efficient and cost-effective while also offering better conductivity, durability, and efficiency.

"The steady depletion of the world's oil and the increase of green house gas emissions raise a lot of concerns about national energy security and global warming," Liu says. "Solving the energy crisis is an urgent national priority."

FUELING A CLEANER ENVIRONMENT

UT Arlington engineering and science researchers have designed a portable conversion unit that transforms natural gas from the field for use as clean-burning, synthetic fuels.

The process is expected to be particularly useful in stranded gas fields, on sites where natural gas must be vented or flared, and when it is not economically viable to move gas to a pipeline due to adverse market conditions.

Provost Ronald L. Elsenbaumer says the breakthrough demonstrates how university research can respond to market demands. "All of us understand the need to lower fuel costs and develop clean energy resources," he says.

Research team members include chemistry and biochemistry Professor Fred MacDonnell and mechanical engineering Associate Professor Brian Dennis. Dr. MacDonnell says the beauty of the conversion process is that it can be placed anywhere there is a natural gas deposit. "Its portability is one of its strengths," he says.

The research is done in UT Arlington's Center for Renewable Energy, Science and Technology (CREST). The center is a collaboration between the College of Science and College of Engineering to coordinate research, development, and technology transfer in the area of renewable energy.

CREST projects include work on solar panels and devices, wind and hydro fuel sources, fuel cells development, magnetic energy storage devices, and hydrogen generation for renewable energy. Additional efforts focus on developing materials for energy conversion and storage and creating energy systems and power grid integration.

THE CITY OF THE FUTURE

The Wall Street Journal estimates that 50 percent of the world's population now lives in cities, with 70 percent expected to reside in metropolitan areas by 2050. Such growth will bring increased transportation challenges.

UT Arlington's Center for Metropolitan Density has conducted an online survey about commute times, transportation choices, family life, culture, education, and the future in North Texas.

"Respondents prefer trolleys to trains by more than 85 percent," says Michael Buckley, who directs the School of Architecture-based center. "Perhaps reflecting nostalgia and a reaction to big people movers, the results show they want personality."

The survey is a component of the center's research on the advantages of high-density living. Theory says high-density areas are more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, but more data and citizen input are needed to design tomorrow's cities.

Buckley and student researchers at the center are devising responses to survey participants' desires for better schools and open space to enable higher density live-work-play developments.

Michael Buckley
David Wetz

ALL CHARGED UP

As anyone with a cellphone knows all too well, batteries lose their ability to store energy over time. Electrical engineering Assistant Professor David Wetz is investigating whether some of the U.S. Navy's new technology will behave the same way.

Unlike those found in laptops and cellphones, the batteries the Navy intends to use are specially designed to deliver their energy quickly and to high-power loads. But since the technology is still in its early stages, it's unclear how the batteries will perform when they are discharged and recharged repeatedly over time. Such cycles typically reduce a battery's ability to store energy and the length of time it can power a device.

"We know how the batteries age when they are used in the traditional manner," says Dr. Wetz, who received a 2011 Young Investigator Research Award to explore the devices. "Now we just need to tell the Navy if these aging mechanisms are the same or different when the new types of high-power cells are used in these extreme modes of operation."

The project, supported by a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, is critical to the Navy since its ships often require quick, pulsed-driven electrical power.

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