Mechatronic Systems Engineering

Agreement furthers low cost clean energy fuel cells

February 28, 2011

It can fit in the palm of your hand, but Simon Fraser University researcher Erik Kjeang says his microfluidic fuel cell has the power to cut energy costs substantially in rural areas of developing countries.

And unlike other fuel cell technology, its high-performance-per-dollar capabilities are a perfect fit for a market like India, where it holds the promise of providing low cost clean energy to millions of homes.

The invention, developed and patented with collaborators in 2007 when he was a PhD student at the University of Victoria, is at the core of an agreement signed last week by the City of Surrey, SFU and Luminous Power Technologies, a leading power backup solutions provider in India.

The agreement paves the way for the company to establish itself in Surrey and collaborate with researchers, including Kjeang, at SFU’s Surrey campus, while supporting the sustainability and clean energy initiatives of the city and SFU.

Luminous is interested in helping to develop and commercialize products from the technology, as a major player in Surrey’s clean energy plan.

Kjeang, who is the microfluidic fuel cell’s primary inventor, along with three co-inventors, now plans further research to improve its capabilities and bring it closer to the development stage.

“What’s unique about this fuel cell’s architecture is that it eliminates two of the most expensive components of conventional fuel cells - the catalyst, which is used to promote the reactions, and the membrane, which physically separates the electrodes,” explains Kjeang.

The microfluidic fuel cell uses something called microscale laminar flow – where fuel travels smoothly and in a controlled path - in place of a membrane.

“At the heart of this fuel cell is a microfluidic channel where two streams, one containing the fuel and the other containing the oxidant, flow in parallel. On a larger scale, where fluid flow is predominantly turbulent, this concept would not work due to excessive mixing of the two streams.”

Kjeang says the technology is suited for a variety of low-power applications. He estimates it will take at least another year of research to improve its performance and likely two or three years before it is ready for the product phase.

After completing his PhD Kjeang went to work at Ballard Power Systems, where he continued to carry out research on hydrogen fuel cell technologies. “Coming to SFU gave me the opportunity to continue pursuing my own research interests while maintaining my ties to industry,” he says.

Kjeang accompanied SFU Dean of Applied Sciences Nimal Rajapakse on Surrey’s mission to India and attended the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Surrey, SFU and Luminous, one of several agreements penned during the trip.

He also had a chance to meet with Luminous CEO Rakesh Malhotra, who founded the progressive company more than two decades ago.

“What’s so attractive about this relationship with Luminous,” he adds, “is that they can provide market access. India is a large market for this technology, which is attractive to them because of its efficiency at a low cost.

“By offering a product at a lower cost we are able to reach out to rural communities and improve the quality of life with clean, reliable power,” he adds, noting the research could still feasibly focus on other uses, such as power for cell phones and other consumer electronics.

“Energy storage wasn’t the focus when we first set out with this research,” Kjeang says, “but we saw the potential for this direction. After visiting India, it’s clear to me that this is the right path for developing this technology.”


Erik Kjeang,
Marianne Meadahl, PAMR,778.782.3210

Story credit/SFU Public Affairs and Media Relations