Engineering student awarded National Science Foundation fellowship

Alexander Choi, an eighth-semester mechanical engineering major who was awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) GRFP Fellowship for his proposal on more efficient manufacturing of fuel cell devices. (Brett Steinberg/The Daily Campus)

As the earth is entering a period of unprecedented climate change, there are students all over the University of Connecticut who have focused their studies and research to take on the issue.

Alexander Choi, an eighth-semester mechanical engineering major, was awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) GRFP Fellowship for his proposal on more efficient manufacturing of fuel cell devices.

Fuel cell devices, if made efficient enough, could replace the heavy polluting combustion engines that most of our cars use. Fuel cell technology uses hydrogen gas and oxygen, and only emits water and electricity.

Choi has been given the opportunity to have his living expenses paid for during his stay at the California Institute of Technology as he pursues his doctorate, giving him the academic freedom to pursue whatever research he is passionate about.

As a child, Choi watched TV as Hurricane Katrina ravaged large parts of New Orleans. He did not entirely understand what was going on at the time, but through reading studies and books about the disaster he came to a realization that changed his life: “This was sort of a disaster that could have been averted by the proper oversight by the right people… It was in some ways a man made disaster that had a really big impact on a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

From a young age, Choi internalized his distain for unnecessary suffering. He has since felt compelled to dedicate his life to pursuing research that will help develop green, sustainable energy sources. “If we’re going to avoid disasters like that in the future, if we’re going to plan for the future and try to secure a more promising future, we’re going to have to invest in technology that’s going to help us do that,” Choi said.

A reoccurring theme he has heard from professors and engineers over the years is “One of the best things about being an engineer is that you can be a force multiplier. You can as one person go out there and really influence hundreds of people, thousands of people with what you create.”

Choi considers the job of an engineer one with a large amount of responsibility, as well as opportunity to positively influence people’s lives. In terms of global warming, Choi said, “This is a huge societal thing, so we need a lot of people working together of the same mindset to accomplish this huge problem and to benefit a lot of people.” He believes with widespread collaboration comes substantial change. 

Since the United Nations report stating our planet is past the “point of no return” in terms of our footprint on climate change, Choi and his scientific colleagues around the world are determined to limit its effects. They want to minimize the damage to less than a two or three degree increase over the next hundred years. “There is no reason to not pursue this technology, because it will affect everyone here within their lifetime,” Choi said.

In terms of completely reestablishing the current infrastructure, Choi said, “It’s not going to easy to just change that… I think a lot of people are hesitant to that change because it could mean jobs for a lot of people who are working in the existing infrastructure.” Choi believes engineering and manufacturing jobs in the combustion engine economy can easily transfer over to jobs in fuel cell economy—once the fuel cells are more efficiently manufactured. He remains confident that “the change will happen, it’s just a matter of how quickly it will.”

Choi acknowledges the work that still needs to be done in order for fuel cell technology to become as competitive as it needs to be to make an impact commercially. “In order to take a system that’s already in place, that has been in place for 150 to 200 years, you really have to prove that your new device is going to be the next big thing. It’s going to have to offer significant advantage over the other devices,” Choi said.

Still, he sees the technology growing nationally and internationally. California is the leading state in the U.S. that’s developing this technology, and Japan and South Korea are developing it as well, according to Choi. “This is a proof of concept...this is something you’re going to start seeing expanding,” he said.

Despite the trial and error, politics and persuasion needed to fully integrate fuel cells into the mainstream economy, Choi has confidence in scientists and researchers in the U.S. and around the world. “We’re going to make a difference, and I’m not sure what that difference is going to be yet—but I know it’s going to happen,” he said.

Choi does not have patience for cynicism. For those who believe climate change is not worth alleviating, Choi said, “To the cynics out there: I’d say read the journals, read the science.”


Brett Steinberg is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brett.steinberg@uconn.edu. He tweets @OfficialBrett.