Students explore the potential of fuel cells to power efficient cities

By Plant Engineering Staff September 21, 2006

For most people, the promise of fuel cells is only that: a complicated technology closer to a pipe dream than reality. For tens of thousands of seventh and eighth-graders across the United States participating in the 2007 National Engineers Week Future City Competition, however, fuel cells are the key component of urban energy strategies that may serve as real-world examples.

Future City, sponsored by the nation’s professional engineering community, each year asks students, working in teams and under the guidance of a teacher and a volunteer engineer mentor, to design and build a city of tomorrow. Students must also research and write an essay on a pressing social need. This year, the focus is on fuel cells.

In the competition, students first create cities on computers using SimCity 3000 software, and then build three-dimensional scale models. Students also write a brief abstract describing their city and present and defend their designs before a panel of engineer judges. The essay portion of the competition invites the students to delve into a subject that most adults barely understand. The topic the essay addresses is: “Develop an energy strategy to include fuel cell systems to power a city of the future.” The essay must outline how the city will develop and use a reliable system of fuel cells in residential, commercial or industrial zones and how it will keep their city free of pollution. The exact type of fuel cell needs to be described, along with how kilowatt output will match specific power needs.

“Every year we challenge middle school students with a task that would leave most adults shaking their head,” said Carol Rieg, Future City national director, who has been with the program since its founding in 1992. “But, that level of difficulty only seems to invigorate these kids.”

Further, said Rieg, considering energy issues at such a young age allows students to see how engineering is critical to resolving a pressing global need. “Showing that connection inspires newfound respect for the role of science, technology, engineering and math in their own future and helps lay the foundation for pursuit of engineering and technology careers, something they might otherwise have never considered,” she said.