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Release: Nov. 26, 2002

UI graduate students finalists in national inventors competition

Two University of Iowa graduate students recently were finalists in a national inventors competition that recognized their work on an improved hydrogen fuel cell that could make the technology a more commercially viable form of generating power.

The team of Drew Dunwoody and Wayne Gellett, students in UI's doctoral program in analytical chemistry, were recently named as one of 16 finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in New York City.

Also recognized was the team's faculty advisor and co-inventor, Johna Leddy, associate professor of chemistry. The invention, along with numerous others developed by Leddy and her colleagues, is owned by the UI Research Foundation.

Dunwoody's and Gellet's invention is a magnetically modified hydrogen fuel cell that uses magnetic particles to increase power efficiency, reducing the expense of operating a cell to make it more commercially viable. The magnetic particles produce more efficient and powerful fuel cells by increasing their power output without having to increase fuel pressure and by increasing their tolerance to carbon monoxide poisoning.

"There's no current commercial application for hydrogen fuel cell technology because it's so expensive," Dunwoody said. "Current fuel cell power systems cost about seven times as much as traditional batteries or combustion engines to create the same amount of power. However, magnetically modified fuel cell technology has the potential to cut that price differential about in half, or possibly more."

Dunwoody and Gellett have been working on magnetically modified systems for about three years.

"Magnetic systems is a unique and challenging project because so little is known about it, so there're lots of research avenues available," said Gellett. "It's also a practical technology and I can see the benefits of the work."

Although little used today, a likely first applicable commercial use of fuel cell technology will be as backup power providers, replacing diesel-powered generators currently used in many mission critical backup power systems. Dunwoody is so convinced that hydrogen fuel cell technology will someday be commercially viable that he has started his own company, Dunwoody Technologies Inc., to develop and market it, and is seeking a license to the technology from the UI Research Foundation.

The team is the first from UI to be named finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Begun in 1990, the competition is the world's leading program designed to honor collegiate inventors and identify the most advanced technology research in all fields of science, engineering, mathematics, technology and creative invention. More than 200 entries were solicited from 900 U.S. colleges and universities, from which 16 were named as finalists. Six grand prizes were awarded by an eight-member panel of judges that included two inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, along with research and technology executives from Goodyear, Hewlett-Packard, NASA's John Glenn Research Center and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.