La Verne Magazine
Summer 2001

Fuel Cell Fuels the Future

by Stacey Mleczko
photography by Liz Lucsko

Capturing audiences far beyond La Verne on NBC, Dr. Iraj Parchamazad and Research Assistant Dan Herrig explain the intricacy of the new developments in fuel cell technology that ideally will bail California out of its energy crisis.

Working in the midst of rolling blackouts and third stage electrical alerts, University of La Verne professors Dr. Iraj Parchamazad and Dr. Jay Jones tinker with chemicals, formulas and proposals while research assistant Dan Herrig tools with the concrete nuts and bolts of their ideas.

All efforts focus on the crucial development of a fuel cell. The cell, a battery-like machine, transforms purified water and clean-burning fuels like ethyl methanol or propane into the everyday energy demands of life through chemical reaction rather than combustion. It works as a long-lasting, quiet and fuel-efficient generator that will eliminate nuclear and fossil fuel energy production. This cell fuels promises of an environment free of pollutants, noise and fossil fuel usage for the necessities of life, heat, water and electricity.

Other corporations and countries have been in search of such technology, and many fuel cell prototypes exist. Dr. Parchamazad and his predecessor, Dr. Justi, built the original alkaline fuel cell in Germany in 1979. It fell short of the mass market because of corrosion and unrealistic expense. While the true origins of fuel cell research stem from approximately 150 years ago, what makes Dr. Parchamazad's fuel cell a breakthrough in technology lies in the smallest twist of a coil and added beaker or two. Behind the cardboard petition in the basement of Founders Hall secretly rests a twin washing machine-like contraption. The bee-buzzing hum coming from the machine distracts no classrooms in its distance and draws no attention. In fact, the seclusion of the project goes unnoticed by most because few students even know of its existence.

The fuel cell generator feeds 110 volts of electricity into recreational vehicles, the industry to which the ULV scientists are currently focusing on mass marketing their invention. The by products of this small, quiet provider, cogenerates hot water, heat and fresh water making efficiency run at an all-time high of 80 percent, while supplying RV users with resources they would otherwise need to pay for. It is a tool of convenience to the RV world.

Creating a low-pressure reformer that allows a safer fuel intake in the system makes all the difference between competitor fuel cells and moves scientists and society many steps closer to taking homes off the traditional electricity grid.

Another unique characteristic to this ULV project is in the approach. These men are drawing on the development differently than their competitors. They envision a 10-year process that gradually results in the use of biological hydrogen and recycled waste to fuel energy needs. Dr. Jones explains, "Solar hydrogen produced by direct photolysis or biological means is two generations ahead. Work has already begun. We must pursue this technology for the health of the planet and the economy."

Dr. Parchamazad proposes that every two years represent a step or generation toward full efficiency without fuel. "Other companies competing in the industry are improving existing technology, but that is not good enough. We are dealing with emerging technology. Everything is confidential; there are many stages, and innovation is a big part," he says. The confidentiality that Dr. Parchamazad refers to is hidden under lock and key at the University.

As California digs, borrows and steals valuable electricity, three men bond brainpower behind the scenes to create a solution. And power is exactly what generates the patenting of this fuel cell. In all aspects, he who possesses the knowledge and patent of a breakthrough in technology such as this, is the most powerful person, university, company and nation in the world.

Therefore, tremendous pressure weighs on three protecting patents that are pending on related technologies, including propane reforming without utilization of a compressor, an enhanced reforming catalyst that produces reduced levels of carbon monoxide, and a new purification system for the hydrogen. Joint proposals from the University of La Verne and the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division have been submitted to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and to the Department of Energy.

"The government is pushing these projects so the United States gains the technology before anyone else. It is a National Security issue for the United States. With this technology, we cannot be deleted [as the most powerful nation in the world] because energy is the most important," stresses Dr. Parchamazad. "Fuel cell technology will help us maintain our leading economical and political position in the world."

"This research effort is a solid theoretical approach to solving practical problems. It is science at its best," says Jones.

This science project has electrified a great partnership. The University of La Verne, in connection with its science faculty, has joined Clean Fuel Generation, LLC (CFG), a company created in the process of this project to help support the continued research and development of an alternative fuel. Sanjeev Kumar, a co-founder of CFG, says the company is definitely attracting much interest. "The key to success with this product is commercialization and venture capitalism." Dr. Parchamazad says by beginning this business, investors who contribute funds mounting up to $800,000 to $1 million are assured that the funds go to research and development rather than to the University.

Bonnie Andranigian, Upland resident, attended a press conference held at the University of La Verne in February. Interested from the investing perspective, she says the fuel cell offers a different source of emergency backup system. "It's great. It has a lot of potential, and there are unlimited reasons why one should invest in this technology."

The University of La Verne is connected to the project because Dr. Parchamazad is truly dedicated to the cause. Dr. Parchamazad, a professor at ULV since 1987, recognizes that La Verne is not traditionally well known for its advancements in applied research.. "My ultimate goal is for ULV to be well known in this field. With several patents in this technology, this University does not have to rely on tuition anymore. We can compete with universities like Stanford. I want to change the image of ULV. We cannot compete in all fields like Cal Tech in electronics and so forth, but in this field we have the expertise."

Philip Hawkey, executive vice president of the University, says, "I am a big fan of Dr. Parchamazad, and he has demonstrated through his tenacity that he has overcome a lot of skeptics. ULV is not known as a research university. Not much of this activity has occurred. If we have a professor who really wants to do research, normally he would work at a research university. We specialize in teaching, and he has so much energy that he can do both. He is a good teacher, and he is very busy, so to spend so much time teaching and supporting students and doing research in addition to that-it is just an unusual person who can do that."

Dr. Parchamazad served as consultant to the Ministry of Industry in Iran from 1982-1987 and as a committee member of the chemical and petrochemical industry of Iran. He was a consultant to the Ministry of Energy from 1981-82 before he joined the staff at the University of La Verne.

Dr. Jones says, "I have worked with Iraj for many years. His vision is clear and far ahead of the pack. The alliance of CFG and the University is a natural one." Because Dr. Parchamazad has united CFG and ULV, there is a great potential for profit and worldwide acclaim. ULV President Stephen Morgan acknowledges the advances made. "If Professor Parchamazad is successful with his fuel cell project, there is the potential that the University of La Verne will be catapulted to new levels of recognition because of his affiliation as a member of our faculty and because his work has been pursued on our campus. If we were to share in patents, major breakthroughs could also provide positive financial impact to the University."

The Mission Statement of the University directly correlates to the efforts Dr. Parchamazad and his team are putting forth. The end result of the fuel cell reduces pollution almost entirely, allowing humanity to interact with the environment in harmony. Faculty and administrators are welcoming its potential for utilizing natural resources, but it enters an unfamiliar area involving protecting research through patents and using the University as a magnet for fund raising. "Because this is the first project of this magnitude in the history of ULV, we are learning a great deal about the complexities of such an undertaking. As a result, I think we will be better prepared to take on future projects. Nothing teaches like experience," says Dr. Morgan.

Dr. Jones asks one to imagine eliminating the brown, burning haze we breathe. He asks one to imagine eliminating the need for petroleum imports. "Imagine cutting the CO2 contribution from electrical generation to nearly zero. Can you see the gradual removal of all those costly, unsightly high tension lines?"

Maybe one can envision spending the California budget surplus on education instead of buying transmission lines. Dr. Jones is asking people to imagine a global technology revolution that will simplify the way people live.

Continuing revolutionary developments in fuel cell technology come from the research of Dr. Iraj Parchamazad, chemistry department chair, and his team of ULV scientists that includes, (right) Dr. Jay Jones, professor of biology and biochemistry.