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‘Fuel Cell Challenge’ Introduces Students to Alternative Energy

With rubber bands aiding traction, Williamsport Area High School%E2%80%99s vehicle ascends to victory.Five teams from four schools competed in the recent Fuel Cell Challenge at Pennsylvania College of Technology, having fun while learning about a futuristic energy source that might not be so far down the road after all.

“I think that’s where the automotive industry is going to go in a very short time,” said Dale E. Jaenke, assistant professor of automotive technology in the college’s School of Transportation Technology.

“People of my generation are scared of it. They hear “˜hydrogen’ and think ‘Hindenburg,'” he said, a reference to the German airship that went down in flames 70 years ago in New Jersey. “This competition helps raise the interest and comfort with hydrogen as a fuel source, which probably is as safe as carrying 15 gallons of gasoline in the back of your car.”

The Fuel Cell Challenge is a successor to a once-popular campus contest in which participants fashioned vehicles powered solely by the snap of a mousetrap. This latest incarnation involves vehicles fueled by the energy that results from electrolysis, the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen is not out of place amid such other renewable and virtually free energy sources as solar and wind power, Jaenke said, adding it has the capability to satisfy environmentalists and those fed up with high prices at the gasoline pump.

“It’s a terrific solution to that,” he said, “and this was a terrific way to learn the technology.”

Holding the event on campus also introduces high school students to the career opportunities available in automotive technology. Penn College combines the newest equipment with the nation’s oldest continuous automotive program and long has included alternative fuels in its curriculum.

“Recent increases in gasoline prices show that the stress on the crude-oil market is great,” said Lawrence J. Flint, a Williamsport Area High School physics/chemistry teacher who mentored the team from the school. “Hydrogen fuel cells offer a viable alternative to the internal-combustion engine, so long as we can produce and distribute hydrogen in a cost-effective, environmentally sensitive way and make fuel cells that are durable enough to withstand the rigors they will face in automobiles.”

Poised at the starting line Preparing the hill-climb course are, clockwise from right, Roy H. Klinger, instructor of collision repair; Steve H. Wallace, assistant dean of transportation technology; and event organizer Dale E. Jaenke, assistant professor of automotive technology The 'Jeff Tech' entry prepares for the climb “Students who participated in this competition have a clear understanding as to the challenges faced by scientists and engineers who do fuel-cell research,” he said. “Perhaps our students will be inspired to take part in this research and develop novel ways to meet our future energy needs.”

In the May 22 event, students took a written test in the morning and then put their fuel-cell-powered vehicles through a variety of road tests in the college’s Field House. Among the categories were distance, speed, engineering, load pull, hill climb and fuel management.

WAHS took home overall honors, winning first place in seven of the day’s eight events. Its students juniors Zach Kiess, Zach Steinbacher and Andrew Strickler, and seniors Drew Koskie and Mohammed Basith now are eligible to compete as one of three U.S. teams in the International Youth Fuel Cell Competition, to be held Oct. 12-18 in San Antonio, Texas.

“My students had an excellent experience and learned a great deal, both before and during the competition,” Flint said. “Our students exceeded my expectations, and I am proud of the contributions that each of them made to the success of the team. The result of this competition goes to show that our school has many highly gifted and talented students who are excellent critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Every school that attended was very competitive and displayed great sportsmanship.”

Other students came from Jefferson County-DuBois Area Vocational-Technical School; Hamburg Area High School, which fielded two teams; and the Warren County Career Center, which won in the “artistic design” category the only category not won by Williamsport.

Partial funding for this project is provided under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, Title II Tech Prep Education operated by Outreach for K-12 and the Central Pennsylvania Tech Prep Consortium at Penn College.

For more information about the college’s School of Transportation Technology, call (570) 327-4516, send e-mail or visit online .

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