The Barrel is Almost Empty

June 7, 2011
School of Engineering, Coimbatore

Our fossil fuel dependency is about to go up in smoke. A stark reality for a world that meets 88% of its energy needs burning oil, coal and natural gas. At current rates of consumption, fossil fuels are expected to last only a few more decades, at best.

The big question is, “What will replace fossil fuels?” Four B. Techs students from Amrita’s Coimbatore campus may have the answer.

fuelcellAccording to Heramba Karthik, Narendran M., Siddarth R. and Sreejith S., the solution consists of one anode, one cathode and one electrolyte membrane, otherwise known as a fuel cell. These final-year Electrical & Electronics Engineering students believe Fuel Cell Technology could be the best alternative to fossil fuels.

The clean, green energy can be used to power laptops, mobile phones and even automobiles. In fact, hybrid fuel cell vehicle owners can now fuel up in America’s first pipeline-fed, retail hydrogen fueling station, which opened in California this month.

Fuelling the trend in India, these Amrita B. Tech. students are experimenting with the extraordinarily clean fuel that doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions.

In their paper, A Design and Development of a Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC), they explained how fuel cells generate energy. “A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts a source fuel like hydrogen, into an electrical current,” they stated.

“When a fuel is combined with an oxidant, in the presence of an electrolyte, it reacts. That reaction generates energy within the cell. A current of energy is established by a continuous flow of reactants into the cell and reaction products out, with the electrolyte remaining within. As long as the flow is maintained, energy is produced indefinitely,” they added.

As their senior project, the students constructed a PEMFC using four main components: a nafion membrane, graphite flow fields, current collecting plates and an external support.


“The normal fuel cell market price is approximately Rs. 1.2 lakhs. However, we paid less than Rs. 25000 because we purchased the pieces individually,” explained Sreejith.

The students tested the PEMFC, comparing temperature and voltage. With initial tests, they found that as temperature rose, voltage also increased. Findings were based on a minimal load condition. Tests showed that the fuel cell acted as a constant current source.

In addition, students used MATLAB software to simulate voltage versus temperature under reversible conditions. They concluded, “Reversible conditions cause voltage to reduce when temperature increases.”

All research was conducted under the guidance of Dr. T. Ramachandran, Prof. Dept. of Chemistry and Ms. N. Aarthi, Asst. Professor, EEE Dept., Coimbatore campus.


Dr. Ramachandran explained what’s next for Amrita’s fuel cell development. “More experimental inputs and a presentation on our working model, hopefully very soon. This research will continue with junior students, under our guidance,” he said.

Will fuel cell technology take off? “There are some drawbacks,” admitted the student team. “For example, a fuel cell can’t store energy; the response is slow; and it’s difficult to cold start.”

Still, the students may be on the right track. Major automakers including Toyota, Honda, Daimler and GM have publicly committed to having tens of thousands of fuel cell vehicles on the roads by 2015.

Will Fuel Cell Technology be the next big alternative to fossil fuels? That remains to be seen, but Amrita is off to a good start.

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