Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy

When it comes to energy research – the kind that will transform the country’s economic, security and environmental outlook – the nation needs more than first downs. It needs touchdowns, and West Virginia University is about to drive two into the end zone.

The United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E, has awarded two grants to faculty in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources that will contribute to programs totaling $4 million to change the way we generate, store and use energy.

“The ARPA-E program is extremely competitive and only the best and most innovative ideas are able to secure funding from the program,” said Fred King, vice president for research. “These awards demonstrate that when it comes to energy, West Virginia University and its faculty are global leaders. It is significant that these projects represent two very different areas of energy research, reflecting the breadth as well as depth of West Virginia University’s energy research program.”

“To have earned not one, but two ARPA-E grants in one academic year is truly an accomplishment for our faculty in the Statler College,” said Gene Cilento, Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Statler College.

“These awards, WVU’s first, are extremely prestigious and I am proud of the efforts of Drs. Famouri, Clark and Liu to earn these grants,” Cilento said. “Their work has helped place this College and University on the ARPA-E map and has solidified our standing as a major player in the energy research arena.”

The intent of the highly competitive program is to support energy research that the DOE believes is pioneering in its approach and has the greatest potential to make an impact on the country’s energy portfolio.

The agency was modeled after DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development arm, which was home to the nascent Internet, global positioning satellites and other useful technology that is now commonplace.

The DOE’s goal is to foster advances in clean energy that will have the same level of impact as DARPA with rapid, demonstrable benefits. This is research that will change the way we power our homes, our vehicles and our lives.

Fuel cell innovation
WVU’s first ARPA-E grant was awarded in November 2014 in partnership with Materials and Systems Research Inc., a Utah-based research and development firm.


As part of the project, Xingbo Liu, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received $550,000 for innovation in solid oxide fuel cells.

The project will develop an intermediate-temperature fuel cell capable of converting natural gas into electricity or liquid fuel in a single step.

It is part of ARPA-E’s Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems program, called REBELS, which is aimed at developing fuel cell technology that offers low-cost, distributed generation. Distributed generation is power that is generated close to where it will be used as opposed to the traditional centralized system of power plants and electrical grids.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to develop technologies that will utilize abandoned shale gas for both power generation and conversion, which will also lead to useful chemicals,” said Liu. “I am honored to be part of the research team conducting this groundbreaking research.”

Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of a fuel source such as natural gas into electric energy and useful products through an electrochemical reaction.

Today’s fuel cell research generally focuses on technologies that operate at high temperatures or low temperatures and can have high associated costs. REBELS projects address the gap, supporting research on intermediate-temperature fuel cells.

A fuel cell is made of three parts: a cathode, an electrolyte and an anode. The chemical reaction that happens on the cathode side of the fuel cell produces reformed fuel, which then enters the anode side.

Liu’s research is focused on the electrochemical reaction that occurs on the anode side of the fuel cell. Typically, the reaction produces electricity, water, heat and small amounts of carbon dioxide, but his work with Materials and Systems Research Inc. will lead to a fuel cell that is capable of converting natural gas into liquid fuel—a feat yet to be achieved.

The result will be a fuel cell that will deliver affordable generation of power or liquid fuel from natural gas with increased durability, produce a reliable alternative fuel source, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase efficiency.


A better generator
WVU’s second award was granted in June to Parviz Famouri, professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, and Nigel Clark, provost for the WVU Institute of Technology and WVU Beckley and the George B. Berry Chair of Engineering. Graduate student Matt Robinson conducted modeling work that was a key part of the proposed research. WVU has also partnered with ANSYS, a Pennsylvania-based simulation software company.

“Receiving these competitive grants puts WVU in company with other highly ranked academic institutions and industry members who have received ARPA-E awards,” Farmouri said. “Additionally, the U.S. Congress mandated ARPA-E to bring technology to market for economic development and U.S. competitiveness. Dr. Clark and I believe, if successful, we can use the expertise in the state to manufacture these gen-sets in West Virginia.”

Famouri and Clark received a $2 million grant that will support development of an engine with an electric generator that can produce electricity for the home of the future – also part of ARPA-E’s distributed generation vision.

The project is part of ARPA-E’s Generators for Small Electrical and Thermal Systems program, or GENSETS, which is aimed at developing generator technologies that will provide residential energy savings, increased reliability for residential power supply and large reductions in carbon dioxide emissions when compared to the current infrastructure.

WVU’s project will produce electric power from a single fuel source – natural gas. The novel system will use a single, low-friction, free-piston internal combustion engine that drives a linear electric generator.

In a traditional engine, fuel is ignited and small explosions – internal combustion – move a piston up and down a cylinder. The piston is attached to a rod and crank. The linear movement of the piston rotates the crank.


Famouri and Clark’s free-piston design uses only the linear motion of the piston and does not have a rotating crank. With fewer moving parts, reduced volume and decreased friction losses, the design provides a high level of mechanical efficiency.

The engine and alternator can be integrated with a home’s heating and cooling system, continuously generating electricity all day to supply the majority of a household’s electricity during peak usage times – morning and evening – while producing thermal energy for space and water heating.

Waste heat from the power generation process can be used to reduce the energy used by furnaces and water heaters in homes, reducing homeowners’ energy costs.

Additionally, the more efficient generator will not produce as much carbon dioxide emissions as conventional systems, offering a climate change benefit.

Famouri and Clark were among the first to turn the concept of a linear engine and alternator into reality nearly 20 years ago and have previously designed and demonstrated generators with gasoline and diesel fuels.

Through ARPA-E’s program, they will use natural gas as a fuel source and will develop a 1 kW-sized linear electric generator that has 40 percent or more efficiency, will last 10 years or more, cost less than $3,000 and have a low pollutant signature.

More information about WVU’s projects and ARPA-E can be found at