Montana State University

MSU invention could improve fuel cell performance, longevity

April 4, 2005 -- by the MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Having a fuel cell power your office building sounds like a neat idea.

But switch on the air conditioning during summer's first sultry day and the sudden demand for power might be more than the box of chemicals, metal interconnects and related parts could immediately handle.

Enter an invention that can quickly predict how much power the air conditioner will need, switch on a separate battery to meet the sudden spike in demand while telling the fuel cell to slowly ramp up to take over.

That's what Steve Shaw, an electrical engineering assistant professor at Montana State University, has developed. The university is now looking for a company to license the technology, which could apply to all types of fuel cells now on the market.

"A problem with fuel cells is they don't respond well to changing power needs," said Lee Spangler, who coordinates MSU's fuel cell research program.

Turn on something new--like an air conditioner or a lathe--and the demand for power spikes then flattens out to a steadier load. Current fuel cell control systems aren't smart enough to predict what that steadier state demand is going to be, causing the fuel cell to practically cook itself responding to the sudden draw when the lathe is first turned on.

But Shaw's system uses mathematical equations called algorithms to quickly estimate the lathe's steady state or ongoing power need. That estimated load gets fed to the fuel cell control system. It, in turn, tells the fuel cell to ramp up to the necessary steady power load and may switch on a battery, microturbine or other secondary electricity source to kick out power until the fuel cell is ready to take over.

All this in one elegant system, said Spangler, that can siphon off extra power from the fuel cell to replenish the battery or other backup energy source.

Called Transient Recognition Control, the invention would not only make fuel cells more responsive but could also add to their longevity, said Spangler. Solid-oxide fuel cells, for example, operate at temperatures reaching 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, and sudden increases in the demand for power create even more heat that can lead to equipment failure, Spangler said.

MSU has applied for patents on the invention. Companies interested in licensing the technology should contact Nick Zelver in the MSU Technology Transfer Office at (406) 994-7868 or by email at by April 18.

MSU has licensed 102 technologies so far. Sixty-five of those are with Montana companies. This is the first invention from the university's fuel cell research program, funded at about $1-million a year with money from the U.S. Department of Interior.

Contact: Nick Zelver, (406) 994-7868 or