Chemical Engineering Professor Earns Prestigious NSF Grant

Feb.16, 2007 -- Steven McIntosh, assistant professor of chemical engineering at U.Va., recently received a $400,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant for his pioneering work on solid oxide fuel cells.

The CAREER award is one of the most prestigious grants available to junior faculty members in science and engineering fields.  The grant provides resources to faculty who have demonstrated great potential early in their careers.

Fuel cells are devices that enable the direct conversion of the chemical energy in fuels into electrical energy.  The most commonly discussed fuel cells must use hydrogen as a fuel source; however, hydrogen is not an energy source and must be produced by consuming other fuels. Furthermore, hydrogen is both difficult and dangerous to store and distribute—so isn’t a practical solution to the looming energy crisis. In theory, Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) can operate directly on a range of combustible fuels.  Thus, they show great promise for efficient, fuel-flexible power generation and, ultimately, commercialization.

Potentially, SOFCs could be used for large scale power generation. By replacing traditional power plants with this high efficiency alternative, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced dramatically.  In addition, McIntosh notes that the use of modular SOFC systems could prevent blackouts, as each city block could be equipped with these self-sufficient devices.

McIntosh describes his research as being “at the interface of materials science, chemical engineering, and electrochemistry.”  His laboratory is unique in that it is taking a very comprehensive approach to studying SOFCs. McIntosh will use his CAREER grant to examine the interplay between catalysis and ion transport so that he can develop a range of novel materials to create high performance fuel cells that can operate with currently available fuels.  In addition, he has plans to test a range of renewable fuels, such as bio-diesel and bio-ethanol, with his innovative cells.  The NSF funding will allow McIntosh to hire graduate students to assist with this process.

The CAREER program stresses the integration of research and teaching.  McIntosh understands the importance of this connection in cultivating young engineers, and has already initiated curriculum relating to his research.  His recent introductory engineering course encouraged students to solve real world energy problems.  In the course, students developed plans for a model house with features such as computer-controlled power and passive solar heating and cooling.

McIntosh plans to provide more hands-on research opportunities for engineering undergraduates in this cutting edge area.  “Engineers are going to be at the forefront of developing energy alternatives,” he explains.  “I want to encourage the best undergraduates to go to graduate school.”

Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.