Skyview science teacher introduces students to hydrogen-cell power

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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photoSkyview High School science teacher Mike Murray teaches freshman physical science students about alternative fuels. Tuesday, he demonstrated hydrogen fuel cell technology, using three small kit cars. At top, a small kit car operates using hydrogen fuel technology.

(/The Columbian)

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In 2009, about 35 percent of Washington students in grades four and eight scored above the proficient level in the science portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. One percent scored at the advanced level, matching the national average.

Legislators this year agreed to further delay Washington’s science assessment graduation requirement until the class of 2015. That’s next year’s ninth-graders. The requirement had once been set for 2010.

There’s a poster of the space shuttle Endeavour landing in Florida mounted in Mike Murray’s science classroom at Skyview High School.

Just last week, the Endeavour completed its 13th and final mission. It’s headed for display at a Los Angeles science museum, shelved for posterity. As is the entire shuttle program.

Sort of an eerie parallel to U.S. hydrogen fuel cell technology.

In fact, NASA has used the simple process to run the shuttle fleet for its entire 30-year run. Liquefied hydrogen is charged and pushed through a membrane to producehydrogen gas, used to generate electricity. Clean, reusable water is the main byproduct.

Not so different from the way a battery works, the fuel cell has been an invaluable NASA resource since 1964.

Yet, here we Americans are, pumping $4 per gallon, imported gasoline into our century-old internal combustion engines.

That chafes Murray. He tells his Skyview freshman students of his own salad days, paying 25 cents per gallon. Of handing an attendant a $5 bill for a fill-up. And getting back change.

In his yearlong course, the first half Earth Science, and then, Physical Science, he urges ninth-graders to become the catalyst for change.

“I’ve told you, the future belongs to the inventor,” Murray reminded on Tuesday. “We can remake the future, and make it the way we want it to be.”

Now astride the soapbox, Murray pounds his point home: “We want to find a way to set our country free, and the way to do it is with energy. It’s about the greatest freedom I can imagine.

“Hydrogen fuels is exactly where we’re going with this country. Detroit can either get with the program, or watch the revolution,” he declared.

A pause.

Then a mumbled question, “What’s Detroit?”

We’re a long ways from the frantic space race of the 1960s, when crew-cut nerds in horn-rimmed glasses and white coats conquered the initial slice of outer space, advancing and exalting the American Way. A long way, too, from Motor City magic.

Today, teens can imagine most anything: Time shifting, time travel, cloaking and cloning, warp speed and worm holes and phasers and quantum physics, right there inside every cineplex and Xbox player, for all to see.

Yet, students’ sober eyes register economic and political realities that all but ensure King Gasoline won’t be unseated any time soon.

“We’re not really used to change. It’ll be a while until we realize it’s a better fuel,” Dianne Walter, 15, said about hydrogen. “We’re just so stuck on the gas.”

Austin Tilley, also 15, agreed. “It’s because of politics. My family talks a lot about it.”

And, yet: Dianne’s father gathers used grease to run biofuel through the family’s three cars, including a Ford Excursion SUV and F-250 pickup, she said.

And, yet: It was Tilley who hooked a plastic peanut butter jar to another plastic bottle to craft his own hydrogen fuel cell at home. He adds some salt to supply an important electrolyte boost to the process.

“I pretty much brought this (topic) up” in class, Tilley said. His father was a chemical scientist, he explained. He’s enjoyed the class under the silver-haired Murray, a fixture at Skyview since it opened 14 years ago. “It’s just clicking for me,” he said.

For most of the students, a driver’s license is fast coming; for some, a first vehicle.

Few predicted their first car would be anything but gasoline-powered. Perhaps five years more, and hybrid models will be the norm, some suggested.

Tilley’s reply was no different. Yet, he’s eager to give history a nudge. Bound for Advanced Placement Chemistry, he’s already scheming his senior project, building a golf cart with solar power and a fuel cell.

Maybe he’ll be the one, out of the couple dozen students in Murray’s class.

The catalyst.

On Tuesday, Murray pulled out small, hydrogen-cell plastic cars for a table-top demonstration. That followed some solar cell display, and came before he fired up a vacuum tube for some “Weird Science” starring hapless marshmallows and a balloon.

It’s part of a culminating, hands-on portion of the year. The teacher made use of extra-long lab sessions all this week while upper-grade students tackle Washington state’s new, end-of-course math exams. Students still get a kick when he ignites sulfate, producing a yellow, then deep-red glow, he said.

“It’s fun. He’s been talking about it for while,” one student said. Most of the class has been “all book learning,” he said.

In the rear of Murray’s room are small plastic models, looking a little tired, now. There’s a Gemini capsule, an Apollo assembly, a scale-sized Challenger shuttle.

Murray used to take students outdoors to conduct some high-flying experiments. But rules no longer allow, he said.

“I wish we could still do rocketry,” he said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.