Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are taking a closer look at fuel cell catalysts in hopes of finding a viable alternative to the expensive platinum and platinum-group metal catalysts currently used in fuel cell electrodes. Developments in this area could lead to more affordable next-generation polymer electrolyte fuel cells for vehicles.

The research, led by ECS fellow Piotr Zelenay, looks at the fuel cell catalysts at the atomic level, providing unique insight into the efficiency of non-precious metals for automotive and other applications.

“What makes this exploration especially important is that it enhances our understanding of exactly why these alternative catalysts are active,” Zelenay says. “We’ve been advancing the field, but without understanding the sources of activity; without the structural and functional insights, further progress was going to be very difficult.”

This from LANL:

Platinum aids in both the electrocatalytic oxidation of hydrogen fuel at the anode and electrocatalytic reduction of oxygen from air at the cathode, producing usable electricity. Finding a viable, low-cost PGM-free catalyst alternative is becoming more and more possible, but understanding exactly where and how catalysis is occurring in these new materials has been a long-standing challenge. This is true, Zelenay noted, especially in the fuel cell cathode, where a relatively slow oxygen reduction reaction, or ORR, takes place that requires significant ‘loading’ of platinum.

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Fuel CellInterest in electric and hybrid vehicles continues to grow across the globe. The world economy saw EV sales go from around 315,000 in 2014 to 536,000 in 2015, and trends so far for 2016 show that the number of vehicles sold this year is on track to far exceed numbers we’ve seen in previous years.

Moving EVs forward

But in order to make these cars, there needs to be an energy storage source that is not only sustainable, but cheap to produce, with high efficiency, and can be easily mass produced. One of the leading contenders in that race has become fuel cell technology.

In recent years, new materials and better heat management processes have advanced fuel cells. Now, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s NERSC center (including ECS Fellow Radoslav Adzic and ECS member Kotaro Sasaki) are putting their chips on polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFCs) to be at the forefront of fuel cell technology due recent finds. In a new study, the group showed that PEFCs could be made to run more efficiently and produced more cost-effectively by reducing the amount of a single key ingredient: platinum.

Laboratory curiosity

While fuel cells date back to 1839, they spent a majority of their existence as laboratory curiosities. It wasn’t until the 1950s when fuel cells finally made their way to the main stage, eventually going on to power the Gemini and Apollo space flights in the 1960s.

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Nissan is taking a big step toward eco-friendly transportation with the development of their new solid oxide fuel cell vehicle.

The science behind the vehicle, which the car company has branded e-Bio Fuel-Cell, uses bio-ethanol fuel to generate electricity through SOFC technology. Nissan states that sugarcane, corn, and soy can all be used as means of fuel – resulting in a carbon neutral cycle when the car hits the road.

Nissan claims a higher driving range and lower charge time than conventional electric vehicles, with a cruising range of more than 600 km (373 miles).

The company expects the vehicle to be ready for commercial purchase as early as 2020.

Fuel cells have existed (at least in theory) since the early 1800s, but have spent much of their existence as laboratory curiosities. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that fuel cells finally got their time in the spotlight with the first major application in the Gemini and Apollo space flights.

While fuel cells have moved forward in the competitive field of energy storage, there are still many barriers that researchers are attempting to overcome. Especially today, with society making a conscious effort to move toward more sustainable types of power, much emphasis has been put on solid oxide fuel cells and moving them from the lab to the market.

(MORE: Get additional information on the evolution of fuel cell technology.)

A team of researchers from Washington State University believes they may have taken a crucial step in doing just that.

Moving fuel cells forward

The team recently published a paper detailing what they believe to be a key step in SOFC improvement and eventually implementation in the marketplace. These small improvements could mean big changes.
SOFCs, unlike other types of fuel cells, do not require the use of expensive materials (i.e. platinum) to develop.

“Solid oxide fuel cells are very fuel flexible in contrast to other kinds of fuel cells, like alkaline fuel cells,” Subhash Singhal, Battelle Fellow Emeritus at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and esteemed fuel cell expert, told ECS in a previous interview. “Solid oxide fuel cells can use a variety of fuel: natural gas, coal gas, and even liquid fuels like diesel and gasoline.”

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As far back as 1839, the English scientist William Grove had the idea that the reactants of a battery could be gases fed into it from external tanks. For most of their history, fuel cells existed only as laboratory curiosities. But fuel cells have gained much more attention in recent years, with many considering these power sources for applications in vehicles and alternative grid technology.

New research from Harvard University shows just how promising fuel cell technology could be. According to the study, the researchers were able to develop more efficient fuel cells that get more robust as they age instead of degrading.

“The elegance of this process is that it happens naturally when exposed to the electrons in fuel,” says Shriram Ramananthan, lead author of the study and past ECS member. “This technique can be applied to other electrochemical devices to make it more robust. It’s like chess—before we could only play with pawns and bishops, tools that could move in limited directions. Now, we’re playing with the queen.”

After Toyota’s 2015 release of the first mass-market fuel cell car, the Japanese automaker is gearing up to release the second generation of its fuel cell vehicle in 2019.

The initial version of the Mirai, which was heralded by Toyota as the ultimate “green car,” could travel up to 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen and refuel in less than five minutes. The starting price for the vehicle is currently $57,460.

Toyota’s new version of the Mirai promises to be more affordable than its predecessor, potentially making the clean energy vehicle well-received among consumers.

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Powering Fuel Cells with Wastewater

The word “renewable” often triggers thoughts of solar and wind in the realm of energy technology.

Two researchers from Virginia Tech are now trying to change that perception, focusing on maximizing the amount of electricity that can be generated from the wastewater we flush down the toilet.

They’re turning poo into power.

(MORE: See what ECS scientists are doing to transform wastewater.)

“Tracing the bacteria gave us a major piece of the puzzle to start generating electricity in a sustainable way,” said Xueyang Feng, co-author of the study. “This is a step toward the growing trend to make wastewater treatment centers self-sustaining in the energy they use.”

Clean Energy from Water

For most of history, fuel cells existed only as laboratory curiosities. As far back as 1839, the English scientist William Grove had the idea that the reactants of a battery could be gases fed into it from external tanks.

Since their humble beginnings, fuel cells have come a far to prove as a viable alternative to combustion. Currently, researchers at the University of Basel are studying how sunlight could split water into hydrogen and oxygen, creating a fuel cell that could produce clean energy from water.

(MORE: Read “Battery and Fuel Cell Technology.”)

Artificial photosynthesis has proven to be one of the most promising tools in producing clean, renewable resources. This process occurs when water is photo-electrochemically, with the aid of sunlight, separated into its H2 and O2 components.

Of the two reactions that occur, water oxidation typically provides researchers with the most hurdles to overcome. The new research works to develop an efficient, sustainable water oxidation catalyst.

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SOFC

New material could help SOFCs operate more efficiently and cheaply.
Image: Bloom Energy

Solid oxide fuel cells may be producing cleaner energy at a more efficient level soon, thanks to a development at the University of Cambridge.

A new thin-film electrolyte material, developed by a team including ECS member Sergei Kalinin, has the potential to propel portable power sources due to its ability to achieve high performance levels and very low temperatures.

Advancing fuel cells

With a huge scientific focus shift toward developing new energy technologies, fuel cells have emerged as a big contender. Transitioning from a simple laboratory curiosity in the 19th century to a main contender for powering electric vehicles, researchers have dedicated much energy to building an efficient, cost effective fuel cell.

(MORE: Read “Battery and Fuel Cell Technology“)

This from University of Cambridge:

By using thin-film electrolyte layers, micro solid oxide fuel cells offer a concentrated energy source, with potential applications in portable power sources for electronic consumer or medical devices, or those that need uninterruptable power supplies such as those used by the military or in recreational vehicles.

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Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy Workshop

On October 26th, 2015, the ECS British Columbia Student Chapter held its 1st Annual Academic Workshop.

The workshop was held at the Molecular Biology and Chemistry Building located at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. It attracted nearly 40 attendees from all different departments and disciplines at The University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and Tsinghua University, China. Also in attendance was the Chair of ECS Canada Section, Dr. Michael Eickerling.

The attendees were given a detailed presentation from Dr. Andrei Kulikovsky on the topic of Physical Models of Impedance Spectroscopy for PEM fuel cells. Dr. Kulikovsky visited all the way from Germany for the workshop, where he is involved in modeling fuel cell components and stacks. Within the past fifteen years, Dr. Kulikovsky has published more than seventy research papers.

In 2012, he published a one-of-a-kind book called Analytical Modeling of Fuel Cells. This book is the first monograph on modeling of polymer electrolyte, direct methanol and solid oxide fuel cells performance. Dr. Kulikovsky’s current research interests include modeling of fuel cells and catalyst layers.

Dr. Andrei Kulikovsky beginning the workshop.

Dr. Andrei Kulikovsky beginning the workshop.

Attendees keenly listening to the talk and taking notes.

Attendees keenly listening to the talk and taking notes.

Congratulations on a successful workshop!

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