Swarthmore’s Fuel Cell Pioneers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

For the past two years, Alex Bell ’09 and Andres Pacheco ’09 have been tinkering in the basement of Hicks, slowly putting together one of the first two hydrogen fuel cell motorcycles in the world.

The pair reported that their “goal was to design and build a hydrogen fuel cell powered motorcycle to test the efficiencies of hydrogen fuel cell, internal combustion, and battery propulsion.”

And they’ve succeeded. Just before Winter Break, they made a successful test ride of the motorcycle in the Science Center parking lot. They achieved speeds of up to 20 miles per hour [MPH].

Despite the motorcycle frame, the pair imagines this vehicle as more comparable to the 50 CC scooters that fill European streets. “The fuel cell has a maximum output of 1.2 kilwatts which is like 1.6 horsepower,” explained Bell. They are aiming for a maximum speed of 30 MPH with quick acceleration.

While just building a fuel cell powered motorcycle is an innovative venture, the bike has even more unusual features.

The hydrogen used to power most fuel-cell vehicles is stored in compressed form, with pressure of up to 3,000 pounds per square inch. In the event of a crash, then, the storage system could rupture, and a spark could cause “a huge fireball,” said Bell.

The two engineers have instead used a system which use fine powered metal to form a chemical reaction with the hydrogen. “It is very heavy,” said Pacheco, but in the event of a crash, the damage would be far less explosive.

One downside to this storage method is that accessing the hydrogen requires heat. Most vehicles that use a similar storage system end up using some of their energy—but Bell and Pacheco decided to use large tubes to vent the waste heat from the fuel cell back down to the hydrogen containers.

This means that the vehicle is incredibly efficient. In the end, the pair expects to achieve 48-50% efficiency. Internal combustion engines, by way of comparison, cap out at 30% efficiency.

The whole project has cost the College nearly $10,000, but at the end of the semester the bike will be cannibalized. The fuel cell, which cost $8,000, will serve as a demonstration tool for engineering classes, while the engine, motor controller, and even bike frame will probably be used in future projects.

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