News and Media
NSF supports Stephen FitzGerald’s work in hydrogen storage materials for fuel-cell vehicles
Nov. 09, 2011
The U.S. Department of Energy has a particular interest in fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) because the technology has the potential to significantly reduce dependence on oil. Fuel-cell vehicles run on hydrogen gas rather than gasoline, and emit no harmful tailpipe emissions, only heat and water. FCVs are more energy efficient than conventional cars, but hydrogen gas contains only a third of the energy per volume as gasoline, making it difficult to store enough hydrogen to go as far as a gasoline vehicle on a full tank. As FitzGerald explains, nature hasn’t provided us with a way to store hydrogen as a normal gas.
According to the Department of Energy, materials-based hydrogen storage may prove to be the best solution in the long term. To date, the so-called stickiness factor of hydrogen in metal organic frameworks has dogged scientists. FitzGerald’s lab is one of the few research groups in the world to successfully use infrared spectroscopy, which is like a chemical fingerprint, to test for this stickiness factor at very cold temperatures.
Compared with a lab in a graduate-level institution, “most of what we’re doing is not standard, and that’s useful for Oberlin,” says FitzGerald, who joined the faculty in 1998 and has been working with hydrogen for about 10 years. “An NSF grant goes a long way at Oberlin because there’s less overhead and we can buy equipment. While teaching and doing scientific research, when it’s money versus time, it is usually the case that time is so much more limiting than money.”
Former students Christie Simmons ’05, Phil Korngut ’06, and Hugh Churchill ’06 helped build the equipment to conduct infrared spectroscopy experiments. The custom-designed box, formally known as an optical cryostat, allows the user to get a signal for hydrogen. FitzGerald says the box has been upgraded several times, but its design was “shockingly successful” from the first use.
Current students will be involved in all aspects of the research, including equipment construction, data acquisition, and the analysis and writing for publication. To work in FitzGerald’s lab, students must take baby steps to become skilled in using equipment and techniques. Two students working in his lab, seniors Chris Pierce and Jenny Schloss, recently coauthored papers that were published in scientific journals. “Student researchers can be an enormous help, and I feel that faculty-student collaboration is one of the greatest selling points of an Oberlin education,” FitzGerald says.
Pierce, a double-degree physics and TIMARA major from New Haven, Connecticut, says that being directly involved in active research has provided a context for the classroom study of physics. “I can see clearly how a concept or technique is used in practice,” he says. “Professor FitzGerald has been very good at identifying what can be learned from almost any mundane laboratory activity, and he allows a good deal of time for tasks that may or may not immediately benefit the research, but have great pedagogical value for a research assistant.”
Pierce also feels fortunate to work in FitzGerald’s lab while several papers were in the process of publication. “I'm been doubly privileged to have worked in the lab when another research group refuted the interpretation of our results. This provided me with a direct understanding of how the scientific community progresses and communicates.”
Schloss, who graduates in December, says she has gained an understanding of how experimental research is conducted, which has shaped her decision to pursue graduate studies in experimental physics.
“I've gained experience with data collection and analysis, and I've helped design and repair parts of the (cryostat) apparatus. I've gotten to work with vacuum systems, with air-sensitive materials, and with liquid helium and other cryogens,” says Schloss, from Concord, Massachusetts. “In working with Professor FitzGerald, I've seen how concepts from my physics courses in quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics apply to present-day research questions.”
In terms of progress toward finding the solution for hydrogen storage materials, FitzGerald views the glass as half full.
“I’d say we’re about halfway there,” he says. “If this research produces nothing practical in the short term, there are still a lot of possibilities in the long term for the study of trapped hydrogen. Regardless, we will increase our understanding of quantum mechanics.”