Chasing solutions in renewable energy, engineering alumnus teams with former research mentor
In 2003, Yeh-Hung Lai ’94 joined General Motors as a technical fellow to lead research on the mechanics of hydrogen fuel cell materials and structures, a new area at the time with promise for alternative energy solutions. There, he dove into the work of addressing problems with fuel cells, which seemed almost endless.
To solve one – the early failure of the proton exchange membrane, a key component of fuel cells – Lai turned to adhesive and sealant science professor David Dillard, his former research mentor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, and the skills he built as a graduate student at Virginia Tech.
Their effort would not only produce novel solutions for hydrogen fuel cell technology, but grow into a robust program for student experiential learning, empowering engineering students as next-generation industry leaders.
“Lai was one of my first students and has become a tremendous collaborator and colleague over the years” Dillard said. “The collaboration between Tech and GM on fuel cell research has supported nearly a dozen undergraduate and graduate students working in an interdisciplinary manner. Additionally, we were delighted to play a role in GM’s progress in improving fuel cell durability.”
A collaboration with decade-old research roots
General Motors has a long history with researching hydrogen fuel cell technology in an effort to address the impacts of tailpipe emissions, debuting its first fuel cell vehicle, the Chevrolet Electrovan, in 1966. To reach its goal of eliminating carbon emissions from its new passenger vehicles by 2035, GM is heavily investing in battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies.
When Lai joined the team, he continued this research to allow for optimizing systems while addressing the impacts of carbon emissions. He was one of the first to work on research investigating the mechanics of fuel cell materials.
A fuel cell is like a battery that generates electricity, Lai explained. A typical battery stores energy by recharging with electricity, but in fuel cells, energy is stored in hydrogen gas in a hydrogen tank. When oxygen from the air interacts with the hydrogen – which flows into the fuel cell – an electrochemical reaction occurs in the fuel cell and produces electricity while emitting pure water as a byproduct. The power from the fuel cell can propel passenger cars, heavy duty semi-trucks, locomotives, and ships, Lai said.
Enter the early failure problem: Lai found that the proton exchange membrane in fuel cells had suffered premature mechanical failure after only a few hundred hours of operation. Thousands of hours were needed for operation, since the fuel cell is a device that generates electricity that's used to run the motor, like a propulsion for vehicles, Lai said.
While at Virginia Tech, Lai conducted research with Dillard and enrolled in his viscoelasticity course. The early membrane failure problem that Lai encountered at General Motors was tied to this very concept: viscoelasticity.
In 2004, Lai called Dillard to discuss the membrane’s early failure problem. Coincidentally, Dillard was planning a sabbatical around this time, and went to Rochester, New York, where Lai was stationed with General Motors. They worked together to formulate an approach to address the issue.
Their approach included researching the mechanical stress in the fuel cell, identifying the problem and formulating a methodology, developing new materials, and running tests on their innovative designs.
The next generation
The work Lai and Dillard did together to find a solution also led to development of a six-year collaborative program between Virginia Tech and General Motors. This collaboration involved researchers at General Motors and both faculty and students in biomedical engineering and mechanics, mechanical engineering, and chemistry.
“Our work together led to solving a critical problem,” Lai said. “It all came back to realizing the problem was a concept I learned in engineering mechanics; to what I learned at Virginia Tech. It turned out to be a great program. An experimental approach to the problem turned into a useful, fruitful outcome. Plus, I got to put into practice what I leaned and pass on that knowledge.”
In addition to the 23 academic publications, Lai noted that this collaboration was instrumental in improving the durability in three generations of fuel cell systems. General Motors has applied the knowledge gained through this collaboration to develop more durable membranes and smarter operation strategies of fuel cell systems.
Lai was a great mentor to students throughout the collaboration, Dillard said, which encourages and supports the next generation of industry leaders.
“Lai’s excellent leadership and management skills set a high bar for industrial sponsorship, and remains the example for successful research collaboration in our group,” Dillard said. “Insights gained and equipment developed during our collaboration continue to find utility in our research and education activities. Students who participated in the GM-sponsored research are now building successful careers in a wide range of industries, likely guided by the skills learned while working with Lai.”
A time filled with firsts
Lai said even though it has been many years since he was a graduate student at Virginia Tech, he often will reflect on the memories from that time. He not only applies the knowledge he learned daily, but he also remembers the fun and joy he experienced outside of the classroom.
Lai came to Virginia Tech from Taiwan, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from National Cheng Kung University. He chose the university to pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering mechanics because the program had an international reputation as one of the best.
“When I first arrived, I was surprised at how beautiful the campus was,” Lai said. “I spent my first night abroad in Blacksburg, I got my first job in Blacksburg, I learned the solutions to problems in my current position at Virginia Tech. And now, I’m really lucky to do what I love and to practice what I learned. I am lucky enough to help to solve the climate change issue we’re facing.”
In 2008, Lai won General Motors’ highest research award, the John M. Campbell Award, along with two other collaborators on the GM-VT project, for their contribution to the understanding and mitigation of mechanical degradation of fuel cell membranes.