Sensors invented by researchers with the Center for Photonics Technology, led by electrical engineering professor Anbo Wang, will make oil wells more productive. Meanwhile, an economical fuel cell material created by faculty and students with the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute, led by University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry James McGrath, will reduce our dependence on petroleum-based energy.

R&D Magazine has selected both of these energy-related developments from Virginia Tech as two of the 100 most technologically significant new products of 2003.

All of this year's R&D 100 technologies will be announced in the September issue of R&D Magazine. The researchers will be honored at a banquet in Chicago on Oct. 14. Past winning technologies in the international judging have included the FAX machine and HDTV.

Polymer membranes make fuel cell production economically viable

McGrath and former student Michael Hickner (who received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 2003 and is now at Sandia National Lab) invented a high temperature proton exchange membrane (PEM) for fuel cells. Battelle, a global science and technology enterprise, has optioned rights to the patents, and Bhima Vijayendran, Battelle senior research leader and vice president of commercialization, is developing products for commercialization -- introducing Battellion™ membranes for automotive, stationary, and portable power fuel cells.

Fuel cells convert chemical energy from hydrogen or methanol fuels into electrical energy. PEM fuel cells use an ion-containing polymer (a form of plastic) for this process. Electrons are captured to generate electricity and protons pass through the membrane film, and then combine with oxygen to create an environmentally neutral water byproduct.

PEM fuel cells can be integrated into stacks to provide from .001 up to 250 kW of power, Vijayendran explained in the R&D 100 entry. Large units could be used in autos and homes but McGrath said first use will likely be lipstick-sized units in cell phones and computers, where they will provide a much longer service life and weigh less than batteries.

"An early adopter will likely be the military, which is looking at 20 kW backpacks to power communication devices," McGrath said. "You can replace 20 pounds of batteries with 5 pounds of fuel cells."

Most PEM fuel cells now use a commercial product called Nafion®, which operates in the 60 to 80 C (140-176 F) range and sells for $500 per square meter. The Virginia Tech-Battelle material, Battellion™, might eventually sell at $50 and operates up to 120 C (about 240 F). It also has other advantages. Vijayendran reported in the R&D 100 entry that Battellion remains stable in the fuel cell's highly oxidative environment, is easy to manufacture, using some commercially available materials and new processes, and is highly conductive, to name a few advantages.

McGrath's group has been developing fuel cell materials for about five years with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and others, including an NSF Partnership for Innovation grant for fuel cell material development. Working at the molecular level, they developed copolymers with improved heat tolerance, conductivity, strength, and life. Then they began to experiment with processing to make production of improved fuel cell materials economically feasible.

In the fall of 2002 and winter of 2003, a Virginia Tech alumnus and entrepreneur, Charles Strickler of Manakin-Sabot, Va., funded workshops involving researchers from Virginia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) to discuss the viability of fuel cells in the near future. Subsequently, Battelle, which manages ORNL, became a partner in commercializing the McGrath group's fuel cell inventions and NSF awarded a second Partnership for Innovation grant this summer to support a Virginia Tech-led multi-university, multi-industry effort to speed the transition from research to products. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Strickler for his help seeding this collaborative effort," McGrath said.

Down-hole sensors improve oil reservoir knowledge, oil production efficiency

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), two-thirds of oil discovered in the United States remains in the ground, largely because of incomplete data about oil reservoirs. New sensors developed by the Center for Photonics Technology at Virginia Tech measure temperature, pressure, and flow — all-important for efficient oil production -- and also measure acoustic signals.

"The oil in a reservoir moves back and forth, creating acoustic waves," center director Anbo Wang explained. "Measuring the wave activity helps determine the capacity of a reservoir."

The new fiber optic sensor systems are about the diameter of a human hair and can reach depths exceeding 10,000 feet. The tiny sensors can be hydraulically deployed through a small tube, which means they can be pumped into place and retrieved without pulling the wellhead and casing.

The sensors require no down-hole electronics or electrical power. Light is sent the length of the fiber to the sensor and reflected back. The message is extracted from the light signal using a PC plug-in spectrometer card, which makes the retrieval system low cost and portable. Since the optical fibers are the same as those used in the telecommunications industry, the cost of the fiber is very low.

Wang's group developed the technology relatively quickly. In 1997, Wang told the DOE's National Petroleum Technology Office about his work to develop fiber-optic sensors for harsh environments. "They were excited and invited a proposal," he said.

The result was a $2 million National Petroleum Technology Program grant, awarded in 1998 to develop specific technology -- the first nationally funded project to develop fiber optic down-hole sensors. Chevron also funded the research. "And Virginia Tech's research division, College of Engineering, and electrical engineering department shared facilities costs," Wang said.

The resulting sensor system, developed by Wang, Center for Photonics Technology associate director Gary Pickrell, Post Doctoral Research Associate Bing Qi, Research Associate Hai Xiao, and Research Assistant professor Russell May, was ready to test by 2002. The field-testing, at Chevron/Texaco’s Coalinga, Calif., oil fields and at the University of Tulsa’s mixed phase oil flow loop testing facilities, was extremely successful. The data was high quality, and the sensors withstood oil well temperatures, which approached 200 C (about 400 F), pressures up to 20,000 pounds per-square-inch, and corrosive agents — from water to sulfides and chlorides.

"Sensors retrieved from the wells after 10 months were still functional," Wang reported.

Those original sensors will be part of the center's display at the R&D 100 exposition on Oct. 14 at the Navy Pier in Chicago.

The oil well sensors were monitored in real time from computers at Virginia Tech, demonstrating the potential for remote monitoring of data from multiple well sites throughout the world from a central location.

"This could pave the way for smart oil fields with sensor highways connected seamlessly for password- or encryption-protected monitoring from any Internet access site," Pickrell said. "This can revolutionize the oil services market."

He also commended the students who worked on the project. "In addition to the people mentioned on the R&D 100 award, many talented students in our group contributed to this award and deserve to be recognized as well. It was truly a group effort involving many different aspects of optics, electronics, and materials science to bring the technology to the state of commercialization."

Six oil-field sensor technologies are now licensed to Tubel Technologies of The Woodlands, Texas (

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.