U of Iowa Grad Student Pursues Fuel Cell Dream

Remotely controlled model car powered by hydrogen fuel cell utilizing proprietary technology.

Published: 28-Jan-2005

N class=storytextstyle>A remotely controlled car that UI graduate student Luke Haverhals designed charged down the Chemistry Building's hall at 15 mph, a speed far from its maximum of 30 mph.

Powered by a fuel cell designed by Haverhals, the car's technology likely won't find its way to the general public for years, but the possibility of "someday" keeps his project going.

"More than likely, it is at least a century away. Either that, or someone has to make a huge breakthrough," the 27-year-old said, adding that he's just one of hundreds of scientists working toward affordable fuel-cell engines.

Although he speculated that the public will not use fuel cells for decades, the technology for the oil substitute is becoming more visible, especially on the UI campus.

Haverhals, one of the first on campus to make a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells, is on a team with 13 other researchers.

The group's goal is to advance the technology, which releases fewer toxins into the atmosphere and uses less fuel than conventional engines.

Haverhals car works differently from other designs of its type, but he declined to comment on the specifics because of patent concerns.

In general, a fuel cell is an alternative to gasoline. If the technology ever becomes mainstream, gas stations would become hydrogen stations, Haverhals said.

He built his car during a two-month period this summer. His deadline was the Iowa State Fair in August, where the car made its debut.

"The reaction in general was positive. Most people were curious," he said.

For the fair, Haverhals built a track to demonstrate the car. The car raced around a track for almost three-and-one-half hours nonstop, as opposed to a battery-operated car which lasts about 30 minutes.

At the fair, Haverhals said he taught some of the curious and corrected a few misconceptions that big oil companies are keeping fuel cells from the public - he said it would cost at least $10 million to convert a gas station to a hydrogen station.

"There were a few conspiracy theories, but I'd like to think we taught the public something that day," he said.

People in Haverhals' lab and economists said market forces are keeping fuel cells from the public, not greed.

"People are not confident that they can get from point A to point B without running out of power," said Tom Gruca, a UI associate professor of marketing and fuel-cell enthusiast.

In Haverhals' lab the car seems to work efficiently, at least for a toy. But the technology still needs some work. He said his goals include making fuel cells last longer and reducing costs.

"The final product is going to be a result of invention, marketing, and government policy," he said.

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