MU professors get grant to solve hydrogen mystery

The team will receive $880,000 from the government over the next three years.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:28 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A team of MU professors will receive $880,000 over the next three years from the U.S. Department of Energy to study hydrogen fuel storage, an effort they hope will someday revolutionize transportation.

The team, along with hundreds of other researchers across the United States, first applied for the grant a year ago.

Jane Zhu, a director at the DOE who was involved in selecting the winning proposals, said that competition for funding was much tougher this year than in years past because the DOE wasn’t given much money to work with.

“We asked for $17.5 million, we got $4 million,” Zhu said. “We could choose very few people — only the truly top proposals got picked.”

Carlos Wexler, a physics professor and member of the team, said he was excited to hear about the grant, given the competition.

“They didn’t even cut our funding. We got all that we requested,” he said. “I was very proud of our proposal.”

Peter Pfeifer, a physics professor who heads the team, said using hydrogen as fuel for cars would free the U.S. from imported oil and be good for the environment. With hydrogen fuel, cars would run on electric motors and produce only water as exhaust. The problem, Pfeifer said, is figuring out how to harness and store hydrogen gas, which will only become a liquid at minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pfeifer, Wexler and third team member, Professor M. Frederick Hawthorne, will attempt to store hydrogen by using carbon to trap the hydrogen in a dense state.

A project Pfeifer worked on in the past holds the world record for natural gas storage, and the group will build off of that project’s findings. However, Pfiefer said that his record “still falls short of what’s actually needed,” and that more research must be done.

Another problem is cost, both for research and for the cars themselves. General Motors Corp. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hydrogen fuel research, and Pfeifer is already applying for more grants to continue his work. Pfeifer said cost will be why the cars probably won’t be widely available until 2040, though the DOE’s goal for the cars is to be on the market is 2020.

“At that point, the entire nation will have to make a transition,” Pfeifer said.

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