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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2018-03-14 11:05:29
  • Article ID: 691089

Turbocharging Fuel Cells with a Multifunctional Catalyst

  • Credit: Nissan Motor Corporation / press handout for editorial use only

    Nissan is one automotive company investing in the development of fuel cell powered vehicles. Pictured here is a prototype that Nissan says is "the world’s first Solid Oxide Fuel-Cell (SOFC)-powered prototype vehicle that runs on bio-ethanol electric power." Credit:

  • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

    A new catalyst to turbocharge the processing of oxygen in fuel cells: Regents' Professor Meilin Liu (left) with postdoctoral research associate Yu Chen in Liu's Georgia Tech lab as they display a disc coated with the catalyst, which works in two phases. The new material also preserves cathodes in solid oxide fuel cells.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

    A new boost to fuel cell technology from Georgia Tech: A nanoparticle coating on this disc turbocharges the processing of oxygen on the cathode end of solid oxide fuel cells, increasing eightfold current best performance.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech / Liu / Chen

    The new Georgia Tech fuel cell catalyst, a coating only about two dozen nanometers thick, works in two phases. First, the nanoparticles on top grab molecular oxygen from the air and make it very easy and tear apart into single oxygen ions. Then oxygen vacancies in the nanoparticle rapidly pass the oxygen ions to the second phase, a layer full of oxygen vacancies which shuttle the ions to their meeting with ionic hydrogen to complete the chemical process that powers fuel cells.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

    A labyrinth of tubs delivers fuel, oxygen and other gases into experimental fuel cells (rear, top) in Regents' Professor Meilin Liu's lab. Liu is developing nanomaterial catalysts that turbocharge fuel cell performance in hopes of empowering the development of multiple zero-emissions renewable energy sources.

  • Credit: Smithsonian edu / The National Museum of American History / press handout for editorial use only

    A simple diagram depicts the basic functioning of a solid oxide fuel cell.

Powering clean, efficient cars is just one way fuel cell technology could accelerate humanity into a sustainable energy future, but unfortunately, the technology has been a bit sluggish. Now, engineers may be able to essentially turbocharge fuel cells with a new catalyst.

The sluggishness comes from a chemical bottleneck, the rate of processing oxygen, a key ingredient that helps fuel cells, which are related to batteries, produce electricity. The new catalyst, a nanotechnology material developed by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, markedly speeds up oxygen processing and is the subject of a new study.

Partly to accommodate oxygen’s limitations, fuel cells usually require pure hydrogen fuel, which reacts with the oxygen taken in from the air, but the costs of producing the hydrogen have been prohibitive. The new catalyst is a potential game-changer.

“It can easily convert chemical fuel into electricity with high efficiency,” said Meilin Liu, who led the study and is a Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Material Science and Engineering.  “It can let you use readily available fuels like methane or natural gas or just use hydrogen fuel much more efficiently,” Liu said.

Catalyst 8 times as fast

The catalyst achieves the efficiency by rushing oxygen through a fuel cell’s system. “It’s more than eight times as fast as state-of-the-art materials doing the same thing now,” said Yu Chen, a postdoctoral research associate in Liu’s lab and the study’s first author.

There are a few types of fuel cells, but the researchers worked to improve solid oxide fuel cells, which are found in some prototypical fuel cell cars. The research insights could also aid in honing supercapacitors and technology paired with solar panels, thus advancing sustainable energy beyond the new catalyst’s immediate potential to improve upon fuel cells.

Liu and Chen published their study in the March issue of the journal Joule. Their research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the Guangdong Innovative and Entrepreneurial Research Program. The fuel cell work from Liu’s lab has already attracted significant energy industry and automotive industry interest.

Naturally sluggish oxygen

Though they work differently from fuel cells and are much less efficient and clean, combustion engines make a useful metaphor to aid in understanding how fuel cells and the new catalyst work.

In a combustion engine, fuel from a tank and oxygen from the air come together to react in an explosion, producing energy that turns a crankshaft. Adding a turbocharger speeds the process up by mixing fuel and oxygen together more quickly and rushing them to combustion.

Currently, in fuel cells, hydrogen fuel from a tank and oxygen from the air also drive a process that produces energy, in this case, electricity. The two ingredients do come together in a reaction, but one very different from combustion, and much cleaner.

One end of the fuel cell, the anode, removes electrons from the hydrogen atoms in what’s called oxidation and sends the electrons through an external circuit as electric current to the cathode on the other side. There, oxygen, which is notoriously electron hungry, sucks the electrons up in what’s called reduction, and that keeps the electricity flowing.

The hydrogen, now positively charged, and the oxygen, now negatively charged, meet up to form water, which is the fuel cell’s exhaust.

In that reaction chain, oxygen is the slow link in two ways: Oxygen’s reduction takes longer than hydrogen’s oxidation, and the reduced oxygen moves more slowly through the system to meet with hydrogen. Analogous to the turbocharger, the new catalyst pushes the oxygen forward.

Oxygen rush nanotech

The catalyst is applied as a sheer coating only about two dozen nanometers thick and is comprised of two connected nanotechnology solutions that break both oxygen bottlenecks.

First, nanoparticles highly attractive to oxygen grab the O2 molecule and let inflowing electrons quickly jump onto it, easily reducing it and tearing it into two separate oxygen ions (each one an O2-). Then a series of chemical gaps called oxygen vacancies that are built into the nanoparticles’ structures suck up the oxygen ions like chains of vacuum cleaners passing the ions hand to hand to the second phase of the catalyst.

The second phase is a coating that is full of oxygen vacancies that can pass the O2- even more rapidly toward its final destination.

“The oxygen goes down quickly through the channels and enters the fuel cell, where it meets with the ionized hydrogen or another electron donor like methane or natural gas.”

The ions meet to make water, which exits the fuel cell. In the case of methane fuel, pure CO2 is also emitted, which can be captured and recycled back into fuel.

Interesting rare metals

In the first stage, there are two different flavors of nanoparticle at work. Both have cobalt, but one contains barium and the other praseodymium, a rare-earth metal that can be pricey in high quantities.

Praseodymium is in such very small amounts that it doesn’t impact costs,” Liu said. “And the catalyst saves lots of money on fuel and on other things.”

High operating temperatures in existing fuel cells require expensive protective casings and cooling materials. The researchers believe the catalyst could help lower the temperatures by reducing electrical resistance inherent in current fuel cell chemistry. That could, in turn, reduce overall material costs.

Protective cathode coating

The second stage of the catalyst is a lattice that contains praseodymium and barium, as well as calcium and cobalt (PBCC). In addition to its catalytic function, the PBCC coating protects the cathode from degradation that can limit the lifetime of fuel cells and similar devices.

The underlying original cathode material, which contains the metals lanthanum, strontium, cobalt, and iron (LSCF), has become an industry standard but comes with a caveat.

“It’s very conductive, very good, but the problem is that strontium undergoes a diminishment called segregation in the material,” Liu said. “One component of our catalyst, PBCC, acts as a coating and keeps the LSCF a lot more stable.”

LSCF manufacturing is already well-established, and adding the catalyst coating to production could be likely reasonably achieved. Liu also is considering replacing the LSCF cathode completely with the new catalyst material, and his lab is developing a yet another catalyst to boost fuel oxidation reactions at the fuel cell’s anode.

Coauthors of the study were: Seonyoung Yoo, Yong Ding, Ruiqiang Yan, Kai Pei, Chong Qu, Lei Zhang, Ikwhang Cha, Bote Zhao, Ben deGlee, and Ryan Murphy of Georgia Tech; YongMan Choi from the SABIC Technology Center in Saudi Arabia; Yanxiang Zhang from the Harbin Institute of Technology in China; Huijun Chen, Yan Chen, Chenghao Yang and Jiang Liu from the South China University of Technology. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SECA Core Technology Program (grants FC FE0026106 and DE-FE0031201) and the Guangdong Innovative and Entrepreneurial Research Team Program (grant 2014ZT05N200). Any opinions or findings are those of the authors and not necessarily of the funding agencies.

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No Longer Whistling in the Dark: Scientists Uncover a Little-Understood Source of Waves Generated Throughout the Universe

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and other laboratories, using data from a NASA four-satellite mission that is studying reconnection, have developed a method for identifying the source of waves that help satellites determine their location in space.

New biofuel production system powered by a community of algae and fungi

MSU scientists have a new proof of concept for a biofuel production platform that uses two species of marine algae and soil fungi. It lowers cultivation and harvesting costs and increases productivity, factors that currently hold back biofuels from being widely adopted.

Multimodal Imaging Shows Strain Can Drive Chemistry in a Photovoltaic Material

A unique combination of imaging tools and atomic-level simulations has allowed a team led by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to solve a longstanding debate about the properties of a promising material that can harvest energy from light.

Study of tiny vortices could lead to new self-healing materials, other advances

Argonne scientists hope that tiny vortices, driven by various magnetic fields, will be able to move microscopic particles.

How a Molecular Signal Helps Plant Cells Decide When to Make Oil

Scientists identify new details of how a sugar-signaling molecule helps regulate oil production in plant cells. The work could point to new ways to engineer plants to produce substantial amounts of oil for use as biofuels or in the production of other oil-based products.

Neutrons Produce First Direct 3D Maps of Water During Cell Membrane Fusion

New 3D maps of water distribution during cellular membrane fusion could lead to new treatments for diseases associated with cell fusion. Using neutron diffraction at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists made the first direct observations of water in lipid bilayers modeling cell membrane fusion.

Chemists Demonstrate Sustainable Approach to Carbon Dioxide Capture From Air

Chemists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have demonstrated a practical, energy-efficient method of capturing carbon dioxide directly from air. If deployed at large scale and coupled to geologic storage, the technique may bolster the portfolio of responses to global climate change.

Nucleation a boon to sustainable nanomanufacturing

Young-Shin Jun, professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and Quingun Li, a former doctoral student in her lab, are the first to measure the activation energy and kinetic factors of calcium carbonate's nucleation, both key to predicting and controlling the process.

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Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Argonne scientists and their collaborators have developed a new model that merges basic electrochemical theory with theories used in different contexts, such as the study of photoelectrochemistry and semiconductor physics, to describe phenomena that occur in any electrode.


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Department of Energy Announces $218 Million for Quantum Information Science

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $218 million in funding for 85 research awards in the important emerging field of Quantum Information Science (QIS).

Energy Secretary awards researchers for global threat reduction

Seven employees from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory were among those presented with a Secretary of Energy Achievement Award at the Secretary's Honors Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on August 29.

University of Minnesota to lead $5.3 million federal grant to improve electronic circuit design

The University of Minnesota announced today that it has received a four-year, $5.3 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, to lead an effort that could spark the next wave of U.S. semiconductor innovation and broaden the competitive field for circuit design.

Berkeley Lab to Build an Advanced Quantum Computing Testbed

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will receive $30 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Energy to build and operate an Advanced Quantum Testbed (AQT) allowing researchers to explore superconducting quantum processors to advance scientific research

Cheng wins Midwest Energy News' 40 Under 40 Award

Lei Cheng, an assistant chemist in the Materials Science division at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, has received a Midwest Energy News 40 Under 40 Award.

JCESR renewed for another five years

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced its decision to renew the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne National Laboratory and focused on advancing battery science and technology.

Binghamton designated as NextFlex New York Node for flexible hybrid electronics initiative

NextFlex has designated Binghamton University to be the New York "Node" for its flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) initiative. As the NextFlex New York Node, Binghamton will design, develop and manufacture tools; process materials and products for flexible hybrid electronics; and attract, train and employ an advanced manufacturing workforce, building on the region's existing electronics manufacturing base.

First Particle Tracks Seen in Prototype for International Neutrino Experiment

The largest liquid-argon neutrino detector in the world has just recorded its first particle tracks, signaling the start of a new chapter in the story of the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). DUNE's scientific mission is dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of neutrinos, the most abundant (and most mysterious) matter particles in the universe.

Tais Gorkhover Wins LCLS Young Investigator Award for Pioneering Novel X-ray Imaging Methods

Tais Gorkhover, a principal investigator with the Stanford PULSE Institute, will receive the 2018 LCLS Young Investigator Award, granted to early-career scientists in recognition of exceptional research using the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

ORNL, United Kingdom Lab Partner on Nuclear Energy Research

The United Kingdom's National Nuclear Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have agreed to cooperate on a wide range of nuclear energy research and development efforts that leverage both organizations' unique expertise and capabilities.


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Breaking the Symmetry Between Fundamental Forces

Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

Water molecules line up tiny particles to attach and form minerals; understanding how this happens impacts energy extraction and storage along with waste disposal.

Heavy Particles Get Caught Up in the Flow

First direct measurement show how heavy particles containing a charm quark get caught up in the flow of early universe particle soup.

Seeing Between the Atoms

New detector enables electron microscope imaging at record-breaking resolution.

Scaling Up Single-Crystal Graphene

New method can make films of atomically thin carbon that are over a foot long.

Discovered: Optimal Magnetic Fields Suppress Instabilities in Tokamak Plasmas

U.S. and Korean scientists show how to find and use beneficial 3-D field perturbations to stabilize dangerous edge-localized modes in plasma.

New Electron Glasses Sharpen Our View of Atomic-Scale Features

A new approach to atom probe tomography promises more precise and accurate measurements vital to semiconductors used in computers, lasers, detectors, and more.

Getting an Up-Close, 3-D View of Gold Nanostars

Scientists can now measure 3-D structures of tiny particles with properties that hold promise for advanced sensors and diagnostics.

Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Matter

Particle flow patterns suggest even small-scale collisions create drops of early universe quark-gluon plasma.

Tuning Terahertz Beams with Nanoparticles

Scientists uncover a way to control terahertz radiation using tiny engineered particles in a magnetic field, potentially opening the doors for better medical and environmental sensors.


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