Energy explores Lasting Energy Options and advanced power systems.

Fuel Cell Technology: Shripad Revankar, an associate professor of nuclear engineering, developed the first working fuel cell at Purdue and is teaching the university's first class on the subject as well. The membrane electrode assembly, he says, is at the core of the fuel cell's design.

“Energy,” says Lefteri Tsoukalas, professor of nuclear engineering, “is the grand unsolved problem of this civilization.”

The reality beneath us, says Tsoukalas, is that world oil production has peaked. The cost of natural gas is skyrocketing and companies are digging deeper and deeper for coal. Affecting pocketbooks and industrializing populations worldwide, this depletion screams for engineering solutions. That’s where university research steps in.

To complement the activities of the faculty in the Energy Signature Area in engineering, Purdue University has formed the Energy Center in Discovery Park. This center is a focal point for energy related research over the entire campus.

For the purposes of the Energy signature area, power generation can be roughly divided into two categories: stationary power, such as power plants, and motive power, which ranges from automobiles to airplanes to spacecrafts.

Stationary Power

From the stationary power perspective, the Energy signature area is looking at hydrogen; sustainable agricultural fuels which convert cellulose to alcohols; and innovative biologically-based fuels.

Fuel cell technology looms as a breakthrough innovation in a young century. With potential applications ranging from laptops to automobiles, fuel cell technology could be a powerful power source. Shripad Revankar, associate professor of nuclear engineering, is working on that cutting edge. He developed a working fuel cell at Purdue and is teaching the university’s inaugural class on the subject. “Fuel cells,” Revankar says, “are an important enabling technology for the hydrogen future and the hydrogen economy.

“Widespread use of hydrogen as an energy source could help address concerns about energy security, global climate change, and air quality,” he continues. “Fuel cells are significantly more energy efficient than combustion-based power generation technologies.”

Purdue’s Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE) is an integrative center for biotechnology and engineering developing new technologies and processes for converting renewable resources to biofuels. “LORRE,” says lab director Michael Ladisch, “provides an environment and the leadership to catalyze multi-disciplinary research for converting cellulose to sugars, genetically engineering microorganisms that readily transform sugars to fuels, separating ethanol from water in an energy-efficient, cost-effective manner. By using proteins as templates for synthesizing hydrolytic catalysts, we generate electricity directly from biologically derived molecules.”

LORRE has also pioneered the use of corn to dry ethanol, yeast to ferment pentoses and hexoses to ethanol, water to pretreat cellulosic materials to render them susceptible to bioprocessing, and biomass to produce enzymes that catalyze the formation of sugars from cellulose. Several of these processes are in industrial use or testing.

Motive Power

Motive Power Applications will uncover alternatives for sustained fuels in automobiles, aircraft, spacecraft, and ship propulsion. Terrestrial Power Applications investigate a wide variety of alternatives ranging from thermionics, to micro and nano-photovoltaics, to fuel cells.

Control Center: Graduate students from aeronautics and astronautics perform tests from the control room at the Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories.

Early September of 2003 marked the beginning of a union between Rolls-Royce and Purdue. The Rolls-Royce University Technology Center at the Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories will study the behavior of jet fuels at the high temperatures and pressures required for aircraft that could fly as fast as 5,000 miles per hour, or three to seven times the speed of sound. Rolls-Royce has 20 university technology centers, but this is the first center in the United States.

The recently renovated High Pressure Laboratory within Zucrow Labs performs propulsion-related research on rockets, jet turbines, and other internal combustion engines. This one-of-a-kind facility has commenced full-scale research that includes work to develop engines for NASA's next-generation space shuttle. "Much of the research in this lab is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Air Force and Army," says Stephen Heister, a professor in aeronautics and astronautics.

Within high-Mach propulsion, new engines would allow the military to design aircraft able to strike distant moving targets without a base in the area. This same, high-speed technology could be applied to commercial aircraft, drastically reducing global travel time.