Researcher has perfect posting

Jul 10, 2003, vol. 27, no. 6
By Stuart Colcleugh

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If Michael Eikerling (left) could pick the perfect job it would look remarkably like the tenure-track faculty position he assumed May 1 in SFU's chemistry department, through a joint appointment by SFU and Canada's National Research Council (NRC).

“It's an ideal arrangement for me,” says the new assistant professor of materials science and fuel cell electrochemistry. “If I had shaped it myself I couldn't have done much better.”

Eikerling, a native of Schwaney, Germany, brings with him eight years of fuel cell research experience from his country's Jülich national research centre, the Technical University of Munich where he received his PhD in 1999, and the Los Alamos national laboratory in New Mexico.

His credentials so impressed B.C.'s Advanced Systems Institute (ASI), the non-profit technology support group awarded him a $120,000, three-year provincial fellowship to begin his SFU career.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices similar to batteries that typically separate hydrogen electrons by means of a catalyst to produce electricity. The hydrogen protons flow through a polymer membrane, also using a catalyst, and combine with oxygen to form water and heat as byproducts.

Eikerling is particularly interested in the physical and chemical processes operating in low-temperature fuel cells, the kind being developed for transportation vehicles by companies ssssuch as Vancouver's Ballard Power Systems.

Eikerling specializes in using analytical theory and computational methods to model the key components of these cells - polymer membranes and catalyst layers - to better understand their operation principles and to help design more effective fuel cell materials.

Fuel cells first caught his imagination in the mid 1990s while he was a physics graduate at the Technical University of Aachen. “I wanted to do theoretical work, but with practical applications,” he recalls. “Fuel cells provided an opportunity to practice fundamental science and also contribute to advances in mobility, the environment and energy efficiency.”

Eikerling's arrival reflects the growing importance of the fuel cell industry, which employs an estimated 1,200 people in B.C.

Last year, Ottawa committed $20 million over five years to supplement its NRC institute for fuel cell innovation in Vancouver. International demand for fuel-cell products is expected to reach $46 billion annually by 2011.

Aside from being separated from his wife, Silke, who plans to join him from Germany next year, Eikerling jokes that his biggest challenge is his daily bicycle commute up Burnaby Mountain.

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