Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education

This article was written by Brett Selvig and Ryan Dunne

H2E3 Ryan and Brett

Brett Selvig and Ryan Dunne assemble a test setup around a PEM fuel cell. (Photo credit Protonex Technology Corporation.)

As part of the Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education project, SERC facilitated internships at Protonex Technology Corporation for the summer of 2011 for two students. After submitting resumes and being interviewed over the phone, we were selected for the ten week positions. Our initial hesitation about leaving our friends and familiar nook in Arcata for Massachusetts was soon outweighed by excitement about getting to work with cutting edge fuel cell technology.

Located in Southborough, Massachusetts, Protonex is a startup company concerned with the design and manufacturing of fuel cell and power management systems. Their main fuel cell product, the M300-CX, is a 300 watt system which runs on reformed methanol. Currently they cater to various branches of the military although they hope to expand into civilian and commercial markets. For instance, a system similar to the M300-CX would lend itself well to powering recreational vehicles, such as yachts and RVs. Protonex is also developing several other technologies and applications for fuel cells. These include fuel cells for unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), and fuel cells that utilize sodium borohydride.

Protonex is a small company with approximately 50 employees and a friendly, team-oriented work environment. The employees were accessible when we had questions or were generally curious about the projects they were working on. During our time at Protonex we were exposed to a variety of the supporting technologies such as the machine shop, TIG welding, CAD software, and electronics. We were encouraged to get hands on experience with these technologies, and took advantage of this whenever we had the chance.

We worked in a variety of capacities on the development of Protonex’s next generation solid oxide fuel cell system. During the beginning of the summer we spent a good deal of time familiarizing ourselves with the SOFC project, building and troubleshooting SOFC test stands, assembling and disassembling the SOFC unit and observing testing. Once familiar with the project we did cyclic testing, aided in mechanical seal testing and troubleshooting, and performed data analysis and review. On the PEM project we worked on the M300-CX units, testing and trouble-shooting, as well as setting up longevity tests. We also built a bread board fuel cell system, which was particularly interesting because of how it demonstrated the balance of plant.

Our internship at Protonex was a tremendously rewarding experience. We were able to apply skills we learned at school and got experience in an innovative company. Getting to see how technology is developed outside of academia was a valuable experience in itself, but the level of responsibility given to us was what we really enjoyed about our experience at Protonex. We’re both grateful to those at SERC and Protonex who made this experience possible for us.