When researchers from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) were working on the development of hydrogen fuel cells for cars, they turned to University of Pittsburgh research partners William “Buddy” Clark and Jeff Vipperman for help. And that was long before Pitt joined a multimilliondollar energy research consortium of universities in partnership with NETL. This partnership began nearly 10 years ago when researchers at NETL, based just outside of Pittsburgh, needed to figure out how to direct the right amount of compressed hydroge from a reservoir tank to multiple polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, each of which required different amounts of hydrogen at different times.
“They wanted valves on each [fuel cell], but there was no technology that would do that,” says Clark, a professor of mechanical engineering and material science at Pitt for the past 18 years.
The pair, working with a team of researchers from an NETL laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va., and funding from the agency, spent more than five years analyzing data, comparing options, designing a set of complex microvalves, and even conducting simulations and studying the controls. Clark says that the Pitt team worked on the valves, meeting with NETL researchers at least once a month to discuss the progress.
“We actually built a device, and they tested it on a fuel cell in their lab,” Clark says of the research partnershipnand the valves that became part of the much larger NETL project. “It was a very well-integrated project.”
But that was just the beginning of what would become a much longer-term relationship with the national research agency. Once the original valve development project was completed, NETL came back to the pair with another proposition.
“Now, let’s do something similar—but a whole lot harder,” Clark says, laughing. And they did. Adds Vipperman, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and director of graduate studies: “This early work, I’m told, served as a model for our next project [and for the university consortium].”
The goal of the project, according to Vipperman, was to develop a valve system for gas turbines that would decrease emissions, control combustion instabilities, and provide fuel flexibility that would allow the turbines to burn conventional fuels such as methane as well as gases derived from coal, hydrogen, petrochemicals, cow manure, and switchgrass, among other fuel sources. The turbines, used by electric power plants, are larger than airplane turbines. He says that NETL required valve technology that could handle high temperatures, high pressure, and “extremely high bandwidth—higher than any valve technology that exists today.”
This time, Clark says, the Pitt team worked not only with NETL on the project but also with West Virginia University and Carnegie Mellon University. Pitt’s role, as in the initial project, was to develop valves that could rapidly adjust the fuel flow rate based on information obtained from a combustion sensor that had been developed by NETL.
“Our valve complements their sensor,” Vipperman says of the resulting technology developed by the Pitt team. The Office of Technology Management currently isworking with Clark and Vipperman, along with NETL, to commercialize the innovation.
Both Clark and Vipperman say they have worked well together in solving engineering problems that lead to the kinds of innovations that resulted from the NETL projects.
“I think one of the things that has helped our relationship is that Jeff is a really detail-oriented guy,” Clark says of Vipperman. “He’s much more focused on the details of the designs and specifications. He’s relentless. When he gets hold of a problem, he’s like a bulldog. He doesn’t let go until it’s solved.” Vipperman, meanwhile, describes Clark as an enigma. “He’s really laid back but gets things done. He’s amazingly creative and effective.”
George Klinzing, vice provost for research at Pitt and the catalyst for the bigger university-NETL consortium, says the Clark-Vipperman research partnership is a good model for the kinds of working research partnerships that help to elevate the University’s level of research excellence.
“They’re a great research team,” Klinzing says of Clark and Vipperman. “Their partnership has been great in developing a long-term and lasting relationship with NETL. It has provided a solid foundation for our much bigger research partnership commitment—and has led to some great innovations. That’s what these partnerships are all about.”