John Zhu Recognized as One of Nation's Most Promising Researchers

One of the nation's most promising research engineers applies his expertise to a concept that is more than 150 years old.

John Zhu's new twist on the concept of fuel cells has garnered him a National Science Foundation award as one of the most promising academic leaders of the 21st century.

Zhu, a Tennessee Tech University mechanical engineering professor, was awarded a Faculty Early Career Development grant of more than $400,000 recently on the basis of creative plans to integrate research and education through his work with fuel cells, devices that create electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Only about 15 percent of proposals sent to the national foundation are accepted each year.

Zhu says the time has come for fuel cell research to take center stage in the search for efficient, environmentally friendly sources of energy.

"Researchers have produced extremely efficient fuel cells, but the cost must come down before it's feasible to use them in common applications," said Zhu. "Our work at Tennessee Tech is focused on finding less expensive materials to produce the same efficiency."

Many NSF awards are limited to only one year, but the CAREER award will support Zhu's research for the next five years as he works to perfect a concept Sir William Robert Grove "the father of the fuel cell," introduced in 1839. Only in the last few decades have researchers aggressively looked for ways to bring fuel cells into common use.

Fuel cells offer zero emissions problems and eliminate dependence on fossil fuels because they work by transforming hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy to run everything from vehicles to power plants. The chemical reaction produces only one emission, a harmless water vapor.

Zhu's research focuses on solid oxide fuel cells, which operate at high temperatures and are best suited for use by utility companies generating power. The structure of a fuel cell is a sandwich of plates that allows high conductivity. Ceramic plates work very well in current fuel cells, but they are expensive, hard to fabricate and very brittle. At Tennessee Tech, Zhu and Ph.D student Zigui Lu, are experimenting with metals, which are cheaper and more reliable than ceramics. The key is to coat the metals with a material that allows the same conductivity as ceramic. Zhu and Lu are studying the fundamental properties of many coatings and the practicality of using each in a fuel cell.

"John's work ethic and willingness to plan a long term strategy is what sets him apart," said Ken Currie, director of TTU's Center for Manufacturing Research. "His first priority is his lab, equipment and supplies. He even gave up some of his summer pay he would have earned from contracts with outside organizations to buy lab supplies and equipment."

The NSF award was also based on Zhu's plans to capture the imagination of high school and undergraduate students with his research. His plans call for introducing students to his research at an early age, through summer camps and research opportunities, so that more engineering students will choose research careers.

Zhu joined TTU's faculty in August 2000 after receiving a doctorate in materials science and engineering from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 1998. He earned his master's degree from China's Shanghai University and his bachelor's degree from Northeast Heavy-Machinery Institute in China.

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