Perspective on Fuel Cells

Fuel Cell CarFuel cells play a major role in creating a clean energy future, with a broad set of applications ranging from powering buildings to electrifying transportation. But, as with all emerging technologies, researchers have faced many barriers in developing affordable, efficient fuel cells and creating a way to cleanly produce the hydrogen that powers them.

In a new Perspective article, published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, researchers are aiming to tackle a fundamental debate in key reactions behind fuel cells and hydrogen production, which, if solved, could significantly bolster clean energy technologies.

In the open access article, “Perspective—Towards Establishing Apparent Hydrogen Binding Energy as the Descriptor for Hydrogen Oxidation/Evolution Reactions,” Yushan Yan and his coauthors from the University of Delaware provide an authoritative overview of work done in the areas of hydrogen oxidation and evolution, present key questions for debate, and provide paths for future innovation in the field.

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SolarResearchers have proposed three different methods for providing consistent power in 139 countries using 100 percent renewable energy.

The inconsistencies of power produced by wind, water, and sunlight and the continuously fluctuating demand for energy often hinder renewable energy solutions. In a new paper, which appears in Renewable Energy, the researchers outline several solutions to making clean power reliable enough for all energy sectors—transportation; heating and cooling; industry; and agriculture, forestry, and fishing—in 20 world regions after all sectors have converted to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

The researchers previously developed roadmaps for transitioning 139 countries to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050 with 80 percent of that transition completed by 2030. The present study examines ways to keep the grid stable with these roadmaps.

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SolarOne year ago, the Chinese government’s energy agency made a long-term commitment to the development of renewable energy sources, investing more than $360 billion in an effort to shift away from coal-powered energy. Now, the country is following through on those promises, paving the way to becoming the global leader in the overall development of clean energy technology.

According to a new report from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), China has continued to grow its clean energy sector in 2017, installing over 50 GW of solar-powered generation.

“The clean energy market is growing at a rapid pace and China is setting itself up as a global technology leader while the U.S. government looks the other way,” said Tim Buckley, co-author of the report. “Although China isn’t necessarily intending to fill the climate leadership void left by the U.S. withdrawal from Paris, it will certainly be very comfortable providing technology leadership and financial capacity so as to dominate fast-growing sectors such as solar energy, electric vehicles, and batteries.”

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BatteryWater-based rechargeable batteries could be one step closer to commercial viability, thanks to research from Empa. According to a new report, a team of researchers has successfully doubled the electrochemical stability of water with a special saline solution.

Energy storage is the backbone of many technological innovations. As researchers explore new ways to develop low-cost, safe batteries, the research team from Empa is looking to water to function as a battery electrolyte.

While a water-electrolyte offers many potential benefits such as low cost and high availability, it does have at least one major drawback: low chemical stability. At a voltage of 1.23 volts, a water cell supplies three times less voltage than a typical lithium-ion cell. While water-based batteries may not see an application in such technologies as electric vehicles, the team of researchers at Empa believe they could be utilized for stationary electricity storage applications.

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Fuel CellNitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes or modified graphene nanoribbons could be effective, less costly replacements for expensive platinum in fuel cells, according to a new study.

In fuel cells, platinum is used for fast oxygen reduction, the key reaction that transforms chemical energy into electricity.

The findings come from computer simulations scientists created to see how carbon nanomaterials could be improved for fuel-cell cathodes. Their study reveals the atom-level mechanisms by which doped nanomaterials catalyze oxygen reduction reactions (ORR).

Doping with nitrogen

Boris Yakobson, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry at Rice University, and his colleagues are among many researchers looking for a way to speed up ORR for fuel cells, which were discovered in the 19th century but not widely used until the latter part of the 20th. Fuel cells have since powered transportation modes ranging from cars and buses to spacecraft.

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GridEngineers have developed a 4-in-1 smart utilities plant that produces electricity, water, air-conditioning, and heat in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way.

The eco-friendly system harvests waste energy and is suitable for building clusters and underground cities, especially those in the tropics.

“Currently, significant amount of energy is required for the generation of electricity, water, air-conditioning, and heat. Running four independent processes also result in extensive energy wastage, and such systems take up a huge floor area,” says Ernest Chua, associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering.

“With our smart plant, these processes are carefully integrated together such that waste energy can be harvested for useful output. Overall, this novel approach could cut energy usage by 25 to 30 percent and the 4-in-1 plant is also less bulky.

“Users can also enjoy cheaper and a more resilient supply of utilities.”

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Transparent solar materials on windows could gather as much energy as bulkier rooftop solar units, say researchers.

The authors of a new paper argue that widespread use of such highly transparent solar applications, together with the rooftop units, could nearly meet US electricity demand and drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels.

“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” says Richard Lunt, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University. “We analyzed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles, and mobile electronics.”

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Fuel CellA closer look at catalysts is giving researchers a better sense of how these atom-thick materials produce hydrogen.

Their findings could accelerate the development of 2D materials for energy applications, such as fuel cells.

The researchers’ technique allows them to probe through tiny “windows” created by an electron beam and measure the catalytic activity of molybdenum disulfide, a two-dimensional material that shows promise for applications that use electrocatalysis to extract hydrogen from water.

Initial tests on two variations of the material proved that most production is coming from the thin sheets’ edges.

Researchers already knew the edges of 2D materials are where the catalytic action is, so any information that helps maximize it is valuable, says Jun Lou, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University whose lab developed the technique with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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Our guest today, James Fenton, is the director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida – the nation’s largest and most active state-supported renewable energy and energy efficiency institute.

Fenton is also the current secretary of the ECS Board of Directors.

Listen to the podcast and download this episode and others for free through the iTunes Store, SoundCloud, or our RSS Feed. You can also find us on Stitcher.

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Researchers have created a way to look inside fuel cells to see the chemical processes that lead them to breakdown.

Fuel cells could someday generate electricity for nearly any device that’s battery-powered, including automobiles, laptops, and cellphones. Typically using hydrogen as fuel and air as an oxidant, fuel cells are cleaner than internal combustion engines because they produce power via electrochemical reactions. Since water is their primary product, they considerably reduce pollution.

The oxidation, or breakdown, of a fuel cell’s central electrolyte membrane can shorten their lifespan. The process leads to formation of holes in the membrane and can ultimately cause a chemical short circuit. Engineers created the new technique to examine the rate at which this oxidation occurs with hopes of finding out how to make fuel cells last longer.

Using fluorescence spectroscopy inside the fuel cell, they are able to probe the formation of the chemicals responsible for the oxidation, namely free radicals, during operation. The technique could be a game changer when it comes to understanding how the cells break down, and designing mitigation strategies that would extend the fuel cell’s lifetime.

“If you buy a device—a car, a cell phone—you want it to last as long as possible,” says Vijay Ramani, professor of environment & energy at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

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