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Government, Industry Invest
$14.5 Million in Fuel Cell Center
By Janice Palmer
The School of Engineering is poised to become the home of a world-class fuel cell research center. Federal and state agencies, along with private industry, are investing $14.5 million to create the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center, which will include six endowed chairs, two donated fuel cell power plants, and a recently constructed state-of-the-art facility at the Depot Campus.
In announcing the agreement last month, Gov. John G. Rowland said the Center is an extraordinary concept that "will create the knowledge base and the workforce that will influence the future of fuel cell technology worldwide."
Fuel cells offer one of the best alternatives to conventional electrical power, because their mobility and variable size allow them to be used to provide power to almost anything, from vehicles and buildings to laptop computers and hearing aids. They are quiet, efficient and virtually pollution-free, because they create electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, and therefore emit only water vapor.
"This is a tremendously exciting venture and I am delighted that UConn will be part of it," says President Philip E. Austin. "Fuel cell technology offers vast opportunities for groundbreaking research and education, building on areas of existing strength at this University. Equally important, it offers a vehicle to enhance our contribution to national energy independence and Connecticut's economic development."
The $14.5 million in investments include a challenge endowment from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, the state's renewable energy investment fund. The agreement provides for a $3.5 million endowment from the energy fund, to be matched by funding from private industry and the University. In addition, Congress has earmarked $2.5 million for research at the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center.
"In order to enhance the existing foundation of fuel cell technology in Connecticut and help our fuel cell companies more effectively compete in the global market, we must attract and retain superior scientific and engineering talent to Connecticut," says Amir Faghri, dean of engineering, who plans to hire world leaders in fuel cell research and development for the six new chairs.
"The Center will act as a magnet to train and attract talented people to our Connecticut fuel cell companies, and will serve as a catalyst to stimulate additional commercial, government and academic interest in fuel cell science and technology," Faghri says.
Although there are about a dozen institutions currently conducting fuel cell research, each is focused in a particular area, such as developing cells for vehicles or miniature versions for electronics. The 16,000 square feet of the UConn facility will be dedicated to an interdisciplinary, whole-system approach expected to benefit the entire field of fuel cell research.
The building, constructed with a $2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration and $670,000 in matching funds from UConn 2000, is itself a testament to recent advancements in fuel-cell technology. It will be powered by a fuel cell developed and manufactured by FuelCell Energy Inc. of Danbury and underwritten by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund at a cost of $1.25 million.
A second fuel cell with a value of about $1 million was donated by Connecticut Natural Gas in December, and will be installed at the United Technologies Engineering Building on the Storrs campus.
The historic agreement establishing the center of excellence could not come at a better time. An announcement by the Bush Administration, made earlier this month, is expected to shift more dollars into the fuel cell research arena. The federal government is forming a partnership with U.S. automakers to accelerate the development of fuel cell cars, while shifting away from Washington's longtime support of hybrid cars that run on gasoline and electricity.
The Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center will foster research and development of advanced fuel cells in collaboration with Connecticut's energy companies. The state is home to three fuel cell companies - FuelCell Energy, UTC Fuel Cells of South Windsor and Proton Energy Systems of Rocky Hill.
Faghri is enthusiastic about the future of the Center. "With a unique assembly of quality resources and commitment by state, federal and industrial partners," he says, "the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center will be the global center of excellence in fuel cell technology and innovation."