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Summary

Unit Operations Laboratory is an essential part of any chemical engineers


undergraduate course curriculum. For many students, this class is the very first
time they come into contact with real chemical process equipment. However, it
would also be beneficial to give students a look into upcoming technologies in order
to familiarize them with potential job prospects. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is an
important emerging technology that could be easily adapted to a unit operations
laboratory experience. Students would become familiar with the mechanism by
which proton exchange membranes (PEM) perform and from this process they would
become reacquainted with fundamental chemical engineering topics, such as mass
transport and electrochemistry.
Fuel cell experiments could be set up on a wide range of scales. On the small
end, fuel cells could be set up by students in small beakers while having them
perform rudimentary output power calculations. On the larger end, a fuel cell could
be built from raw materials purchased from various companies and the students
could use the equipment to perform extensive calculations on the efficiency of the
fuel cell. More information is available for in depth experiments performed with a
self-assembled fuel cell in the following cited articles 1,2.
Cost estimates have been provided for three different types of hydrogen fuel
cell setups. Beaker size experiments would be extremely cost effective and would
be relatively easy for the students to perform. Larger fuel cells can be put together
from raw material pieces found online, but this process would cost more time and
money. A final alternative is to purchase a preassembled fuel cell from an online
source.

Project Goals:
1. Familiarize students with an important upcoming technology that is relevant
to the field of chemical engineering
Undergraduates will obtain hands-on experience with a working
hydrogen fuel cell in the laboratory. This exposure will become
meaningful as fuel cells become more and more prevalent in popular
society.
2. Refresh the students memories on the topics of thermodynamics,
electrolysis, transport, etc.
In order to be adequately prepared for the lab, students will need to
become acquainted with the mechanism by which PEM fuel cells
operate. Due to the nature of the hydrogen fuel cell system, this will
require students to apply their knowledge of multiple chemical
engineering topics to reach a complete understanding.
3. Motivate students to learn more about current fuel cell technology, or in other
related areas.
The intention of the hydrogen fuel cell experiment is ultimately to
interest and intrigue the students in this green energy field. Many
chemical engineers are immediately hired by big oil companies upon
graduation. However, this lab experience may open the students eyes
to job opportunities in other areas that will could be beneficial to the
environment.

Background:
The primary purpose of Unit Operations Laboratory is to provide
undergraduate students with practical knowledge and hands-on experience with
common pieces of chemical processing equipment. However, it is equally important
to expose students to current or emerging technologies within the chemical
engineering field. Many major corporations that hire chemical engineers have vast
teams of engineers working on increasing the feasibility of breakthrough
technologies. Students that have familiarity with these next-gen machines from an
intriguing unit operations lab would be more interested and better prepared to work
for a company that designs these modern technologies. One of the major
technological breakthroughs in renewable energy over the past few decades has
been the development of hydrogen fuel cells. Our generation will almost
undoubtedly see fuel cells incorporated into vehicles in some way over the course of
the next decades. As such, it would be extremely beneficial for our chemical
engineers to have a basic understanding of the operation of a fuel cell and the
problems associated with running one.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Car

Fortunately, hydrogen fuel cells can be either constructed or purchased


relatively easily without a heavy economic burden. One of the advantages of this
fact is the flexibility in the types of experiments that students could run with the
fuel cell. Depending on the size of the desired fuel cell, students could construct
the fuel cell with household parts during the lab and perform simple voltammetry,
or groups of students could monitor the electrical output of a moderately large, prepurchased fuel cell. Small scale home-made fuel cells may be subject to large
inaccuracies and the results would be mainly qualitative, but the hands-on
experience given to students by creating their own device would be invaluable. Lab
scale fuel cells would be more accurate and would allow students to perform
quantitative analysis techniques such as output power and overall efficiency.

Example home-made fuel cell

One of the most common types of hydrogen fuel cells uses a proton exchange
membrane (PEM). Experiments and calculations performed with a PEM would test
knowledge in many essential chemical engineering topics including
thermodynamics, transport phenomena, molecular kinetics, and electrochemistry.
For many chemical engineering students, electrochemistry is a topic that is
completely neglected and forgotten after completing their core classwork in
chemistry. The fuel cell experiment would help refresh the students memory on
this topic and give them a physical example for them to reference in the future. The
pre-lab for this experiment could focus on forcing students to learn the mechanism
by which PEM fuel cells operate. While the process is relatively easy to grasp, the
students will need to combine their knowledge from multiple previous chemical
engineering courses in order to fully comprehend the operation. The basic process
of PEM fuel cells consists of splitting and recombining molecular hydrogen with
oxygen to form water. This process is facilitated by the semipermeable membrane
separating the cathode and the anode. Due to the properties of this material, the
membrane only allows protons to travel from the anode to the cathode. This action
then forces the generated electrons to travel through a conductor to bypass the
membrane which then gives rise to an electrical current.

Mechanism of PEM fuel cell operation

Budget:

The price range for any fuel cell experiment will vary widely with the scale of
the desired project. On the lowest side of the spectrum, a crude fuel cell can be
constructed from household materials for virtually no cost. However, a moderately
large and reliable fuel cell could be constructed from easily available parts. The
team at the University of Connecticut has put together a breakdown of the
estimated cost for a fuel cell made by this option. Finally, an instructor-friendly fuel
cell could be purchased online for a reasonable flat rate and would require minimal
assembly. Shown below are rough cost estimates for each of these three routes of
assembly.
Crude Home-made Fuel Cell

Example Crude Fuel Cell

In-House Built Fuel Cell1

Premade Lab-Scale Fuel Cell:


Heliocentris Dr. Fuel Cell Professional Demo Classroom Bundle $3835

Estimate based on
FuellCellstore.com

Image of Heliocentris Dr. Fuel Cell System

References
1. Bailey, A., Andrews, L., Khot, A., Rubin, L., Young, J., Allston, T. D., & Takacs, G. A.
(2015). Hydrogen Storage Experiments for an Undergraduate Laboratory
CourseClean Energy: Hydrogen/Fuel Cells. Journal of Chemical Education,
92(4), 688692. http://doi.org/10.1021/ed5006294

2. Jung-Chou Lin, Russel Kunz, James M. Fenton, & Suzanne S. Fenton. (n.d.). The
Fuel Cell - An Ideal Chemical Engineering Undergraduate Experiment.