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Do Fuel Cell Topics Belong In A Combustion Course?

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Energy Curriculum Advancements

Tagged Division

Energy Conversion and Conservation

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.492.1 - 11.492.24



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Paper Authors


David Blekhman Grand Valley State University

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DAVID BLEKHMAN is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. He holds M.S. in Thermal Physics from the St. Petersburg State Technical University, Russia and a Ph. D. in Mechanical Engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Since joining GVSU, he has taught courses in the Mechanics and Thermal-Fluids sequences. He has also focused on developing courses in Combustion and Alternative Energy.

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Ali Mohammadzadeh Grand Valley State University

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ALI R. MOHAMMADZADEH is currently assistant professor of engineering at Padnos School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Sharif University of Technology And his M.S. and Ph.D. both in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His research area of interest is fluid-structure interaction.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Do Fuel Cell Topics Belong in a Combustion Course? Abstract

Combustion technologies are responsible for a lion’s share of the country’s electric power production and virtually a hundred percent of the conversion of fuels to power in the transportation sector. In spite of this domination, there is a growing competition from cleaner, more efficient energy technologies and a demand for distributed power generation. This is an area of engineering in which fuel cells are beginning to play a noticeable role. Fairly often combustion and fuel cells are referred to as opposing and quite different technologies. For example, one of the most reputable Thermodynamics textbooks1 emphasizes that the chemical reactions in fuel cells are “not a combustion process.” Despite the differences, a careful inspection of the topics associated with fuel cells surprisingly reveals a great deal of parallels with combustion.

The traditional sequence of topics in a combustion course proceeds from stoichiometry thru the second law to the Gibbs function and to the chemical equilibrium of combustion products. This coverage of material allows a straightforward extension into the thermochemistry of fuel cells with the derivation of the Nernst equation. This equation contains important fuel cell operating parameters, such as temperature and pressure. For example, the temperature affects the ideal voltage of a fuel cell, while partial pressures are responsible for fuel utilization. Along the same lines, both pressure and temperature influence the product outcome in combustion.

Fuel cell topics also include fuel-reforming applications. Depending on the operating temperature, fuel cells utilize internal or external reforming. There are three main technologies of fuel reforming. First, partial oxidation is a combustion process where fuels are burned in fuel- rich conditions. Second, steam reforming and the water-gas shift reaction are chemical reactions already common in combustion textbooks2. Third, thermal autoreforming is a combination of the two methods. All of them present an excellent opportunity to expand students’ experiences with relevant chemical equilibrium homework problems as well as course projects.

The authors fully agree that fuel cell reactions are not combustion. Nevertheless, the similarity of the underlying theories and applications is undeniable. This paper will introduce a way of interweaving fuel cell topics in a combustion course. This is especially beneficial in a curriculum that is not ready or does not have room for a full course on fuel cells.


It is surprising to learn that fuel cell technology is over 165 years old, and yet it has made only marginal inroads in the modern power production world. William Grove, a British investigator, is generally acknowledged as the inventor of the fuel cell. However, some sources indicate that it might have been Humphrey Davy who should be credited with this invention in 1801, almost forty years earlier3. The successful development of combustion-mechanical power-dynamo technology in the early 1900 overshadowed any attempts to commercially develop fuel cells’ direct conversion for many years to come. Most fuel cell work was done in a laboratory setting. However, this hard research eventually paid off in the mid 1950s in the work of Francis Thomas Bacon, whose fuel cells flew NASA’s Apollo missions. Still much lighter than comparable

Blekhman, D., & Mohammadzadeh, A. (2006, June), Do Fuel Cell Topics Belong In A Combustion Course? Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--399

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