Montana State University

Fuels cells electrify learning for engineering student

January 14, 2005 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens


Paul Gannon checks one of seven kilns he uses to test the longevity of fuel cell components. (MSU photo by Erin Raley.)   High-Res Available

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Paul Gannon is a Montana kid. He went to high school in Billings and has family connections to a former ranch, now golf course, in Great Falls. He hunts, fishes and backpacks. Kayaks, climbs and skis too. He can hum a few songs of the pioneers and knows a Charlie Russell story or two.

But Gannon, 24, is doing something that until recently was decidedly un-Montanan: researching high-tech energy sources called fuel cells.

"It's fantastic that I'm able to pursue such a high-tech field in Bozeman," said Gannon, a graduate student in chemical engineering who has a strong environmental interest. "I'd like to feel like what I'm doing here may make some long-term contribution to sustainable energy technologies."

Gannon says he's taken a little ribbing from relatives who wonder why he hasn't gone somewhere else to get his Ph.D. He answers that he doesn't need to.

"There's a nice breadth of research here," he said, "that spans the spectrum from fundamental to applied. It's unique to have this much breadth."

Fuel cells, despite their Spaceman Spiff image of always being in the future, really do work. But not for cheap. NASA puts them on the space shuttle. Without a big budget, however, the cost of energy produced by fuel cells is prohibitively high.

But so is the potential for cleaner, more efficient energy production, and industry and the federal government want to expand the technology beyond high-cost niche marketplaces. They want greater production of those metal boxes whose chemistry produces electricity. They envision a clean, distributed, reliable energy source operable in a variety of settings.

People like Gannon are working toward those goals, and until lately none of that research was happening in Montana.

Opportunity has knocked for Gannon, but he's also shown a lot of initiative, said Lee Spangler, who coordinates MSU's fuel cell program as director of special projects in the Vice President for Research Office.

As an undergraduate, Gannon completed several internships at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. ("It was like a chemist's candy store with all the equipment they had," Gannon remembered.) His work with PNNL on fuel cells continues.

Gannon also works at Arcomac Surface Engineering, a small high-tech company in Bozeman that specializes in fine metal coatings. The company owns a piece of equipment found nowhere else in the world.

What's more, he's doing his own path-breaking research on fuel cell materials that keeps seven kiln-like furnaces cooking at nearly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit around the clock in a lab on campus.

"Paul is unusually capable and has an unusual combination of experiences," Spangler said. "This is what the [MSU] fuel cell program has to offer students--at least two of these three types of experiences" with industry, national labs and university scientists.

Gannon, immersed in this research direction new to Montana, has a couple more years of graduate school ahead of him. By then, his research on the best metal coatings may have ushered in a longer lasting, less expensive solid-oxide fuel cell for a broader market.

What might be next is unclear for this young man lucky enough to combine his love of the Montana outdoors with his educational interests.

"I'd love to stay here forever and do it all."

Contact: Annette Trinity-Stevens, (406) 994-5607 or annettet@montana.edu