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Engineering Mechanics Hosts Seminar on Alternative Energy

By Ashley Washburn

Kenneth Reifsnider

As gas prices climbed toward $3 a gallon on April 26, an expert on fuel cell engineering gave a lecture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln on the advances made in developing an alternative energy source.

“The greatest need in our country is to reduce emissions and increase efficiency in our cities and homes,” said Kenneth Reifsnider, a University of Connecticut mechanical engineering professor and director of the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center.

Reifsnider’s lecture, part of the Centennial Seminar Series hosted by the Department of Engineering Mechanics, addressed the successes and challenges of using fuel cells. These cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and produce electricity in the process. Many people think of fuel cells as an energy source for automobiles, but Reifsnider said fuel cells also could be used in cellular phones, power plants, and batteries, among other things.

Fuel cells have improved greatly in the past 10 years, Reifsnider said. Their output has more than doubled because of new materials used for the cells’ “membranes.” Scientists and engineers also have learned how to make the cell catalyze fuel more efficiently. While fuel cells have traditionally drawn upon hydrogen, 11 other materials—including ethanol—are now viable energy sources.

Fuel cells aren’t without drawbacks, Reifsnider said. They still cost more than traditional energy sources such as combustible engines. Scientists also don’t know how durable fuel cells will be in the long run.

Reifsnider said he hoped more engineering students would consider careers in developing alternative energy sources. Engineers should be at the forefront of change because they have the skills to improve fuel cells’ efficiency and durability, he said.

He also believes the public is aware of the growing energy crisis and understands the importance of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. However, engineers need to take a greater leadership role in helping society become more comfortable using alternative fuel and related technologies, he said.

“Engineers can play a role in doing research and creating systems but also in being resources for society,” Reifsnider said. “We have failed, or at least partly failed, at that. We need to explain to young people why this technology is important to them. This is an amazing opportunity and the biggest single change in society that we have ever seen.”

Despite the challenges of improving technology and educating the public, Reifsnider said he was optimistic about the future. “I don’t think we’re trying to drag people along. I think the public will accept this more than we ever dreamed.

 

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