At first glance, a 50-cc Vespa scooter and a squad car may not appear to have much in common; however, the two connected in a partnership between a class of UW-Madison freshman engineering students and officials from Beloit, Wisconsin. The partnership made progress toward technologies that could eventually run a variety of vehicles on nothing but water.
During the fall 2009 semester, a section of INTEREGR 160: Introduction to Engineering, led by Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Anderson and Beloit Public Works fleet manager Dan Lutz, demonstrated a new hydrogen-assisted system that can run a Vespa on a hydrogen-gasoline fuel mix. The students were able to run the Vespa entirely on hydrogen both at idling and high-throttle speeds. Since hydrogen creates more complete engine combustion, the class scooter produced fewer emissions than factory Vespas.
In spring 2009, Anderson’s freshman engineering class developed a wet-cell system that ran water through a container called an electrolyzer, which contained fuel cells to split water via electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen. The fuel cells, powered by the scooter’s alternator, funneled the hydrogen directly to the engine via a stainless steel tube. This year, the class altered the system to be a dry-cell system. Unlike a wet-cell design, which submerges the electrical components in water, the dry-cell system keeps the electrical connections above water. This combined with Lutz’s unique designs has created an efficient system that powers the scooter with hydrogen and oxygen, which are produced on demand in the fuel cell.
Future classes may be able to run the scooter entirely on water by using the battery to start the electrolyzer. Anderson also anticipates students will work on a system that works with tap water, rather than the distilled water with sodium hydroxide used in the current system.
“It’s exciting to be working with hydrogenbased technologies, and I really want to see this go further,” says Lutz. “We’ve got a long way to go, but by running a Vespa entirely on hydrogen, we’ve proved it can be done.”
Lutz hopes to eventually implement a fine-tuned version of the system in a variety of Beloit vehicles, including squad cars and city pick-up trucks. Beloit Public Works has been testing hydrogen-based systems in city fleet vehicles since the spring of 2008, and Lutz, who oversees the more than 300-vehicle fleet, has worked to meet the city’s sustainability goals by testing hydrogen-on-demand systems to save fuel and help the environment.
Lutz was put in contact with Anderson through various public works and UW-Madison contacts. Throughout the semester, Lutz traveled to Madison every Wednesday evening to help teach the students about hydrogenbased technologies. During class, the students tested fuel cell designs and coated the fuel cell plating with a proprietary surface coating developed by Anderson that improves performance and efficiency. A U.S. patent on this coating is pending through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
The partnership between UW-Madison and Beloit Public Works was mutually beneficial. Lutz was able to leverage university resources, including laboratories and faculty expertise, to advance hydrogen technologies and eventually enable suppliers to build systems for him to implement in the Beloit fleet vehicles.
The engineering students also benefited from Lutz’s presence on campus, says Anderson, and took full advantage of their opportunity to learn from both instructors.
“We cancelled class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and several students still came into the lab because they didn’t want to miss a week,” says Lutz.