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    • 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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    Missing gamma-ray blobs shed new light on dark matter, cosmic magnetism

    Scientists, including researchers from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, have compiled the most detailed catalog of such blobs using eight years of data collected with the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. The blobs, including 19 gamma-ray sources that weren't known to be extended before, provide crucial information on how stars are born, how they die, and how galaxies spew out matter trillions of miles into space.

    Applying Auto Industry's Fuel-Efficiency Standards to Agriculture Could Net Billions in Corn Sector, Researchers Conclude

    Adopting benchmarks similar to the fuel-efficiency standards used by the auto industry in the production of fertilizer could yield $5-8 billion in economic benefits for the U.S. corn sector alone, researchers have concluded in a new analysis.

    Research on Light-Matter Interaction Could Lead to Improved Electronic and Optoelectronic Devices

    A paper published in Nature Communications by Sufei Shi, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer, increases our understanding of how light interacts with atomically thin semiconductors and creates unique excitonic complex particles, multiple electrons, and holes strongly bound together.

    Next-Gen Ultrafast Optical Fiber-Based Electron Gun to Reveal Atomic Motions During Transition State

    A new method enables researchers to directly observe and capture atomic motions at surfaces and interfaces in real time.

    Intense Microwave Pulse Ionizes Its Own Channel Through Plasma

    Researchers experimentally observed the ionization-induced channeling of an intense microwave beam propagating through a neutral gas (>103 Pa).

    Ancient Pigment Can Boost Energy Efficiency

    Egyptian blue, derived from calcium copper silicate, was routinely used on ancient depictions of gods and royalty. Previous studies have shown that when Egyptian blue absorbs visible light, it then emits light in the near-infrared range. Now a team led by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has confirmed the pigment's fluorescence can be 10 times stronger than previously thought.

    Expanding Fungal Diversity, One Cell at a Time

    Reported October 8, 2018, in Nature Microbiology, a team led by U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute researchers developed a pipeline to generate genomes from single cells of uncultivated fungi. The approach was tested on several uncultivated species representing early diverging fungi.

    Columbia Engineers Build Smallest Integrated Kerr Frequency Comb Generator

    Optical frequency combs can enable ultrafast processes in physics, biology, and chemistry, as well as improve communication and navigation, medical testing, and security. Columbia Engineers have built a Kerr frequency comb generator that, for the first time, integrates the laser with the microresonator, significantly shrinking the system's size and power requirements. They no longer need to connect separate devices using fiber--they can now integrate it all on compact and energy efficient photonic chips.

    Scientists Present New Clues to Cut Through the Mystery of Titan's Atmospheric Haze

    Experiments at Berkeley Lab helped scientists zero in on a low-temperature chemical mechanism that may help to explain the complex molecular compounds that make up the nitrogen-rich haze layer surrounding Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

    Consumers willing to pay more for sustainably brewed beer, study finds

    More and more breweries are investing in practices to save energy and reduce greenhouse gases. Will it pay off? A study by Indiana University researchers suggests it may.


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    Prototype Solar Energy, Battery Systems to Fuel Commercialization

    Designing, building and testing prototype systems that show how renewable energy can power devices, such as a weather and soil sensor station, can help bridge the gap between basic science research and commercialization.

    Argonne to Advance High Performance Computing in Manufacturing

    Argonne awarded funding to partner with Industry to advance the use of high performance computing in manufacturing.

    "Invisible Glass" Wins 2018 Create the Future Design Contest Grand Prize

    Scientists from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials developed a technique for making nonreflecting glass, silicon, and plastic surfaces.

    Missouri S&T researchers win multimillion dollar grant to build fast-charging stations for electric cars

    Researchers from Missouri S&T and three private companies will combine their expertise to create charging stations for electric vehicles that could charge a car in less than 10 minutes - matching the time it takes to fill up a conventional vehicle with gasoline."The big problem with electric vehicles is range, and it's not so much range as range anxiety.

    Making batteries store more energy, last longer

    A new solid polymer electrolyte may help make cell phone batteries store more energy and last longer.

    Three Brookhaven Lab Scientists Named Fellows of American Physical Society

    The American Physical Society (APS), the world's largest physics organization, has elected three scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory as 2018 APS fellows.

    Southern Research first to win accreditation under ISO 14034

    Southern Research has become the first organization in the United States to earn accreditation under ISO 14034, a new international standard for evaluating and verifying environmental technologies that was recently adopted by the American National Standards Institute.

    Kawtar Hafidi to head Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate at Argonne

    Physicist Kawtar Hafidi has been appointed Associate Laboratory Director, Physical Sciences and Engineering at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

    Argonne researchers honored by Energy Secretary's awards program

    A select group of researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory was recently recognized for their contributions to infrastructure security and nuclear nonproliferation at the Secretary's Honor Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on August 29.

    PPPL's Sam Cohen earns award at meeting of U.S. government-funded laboratories hosted by PPPL

    PPPL physicist Sam Cohen and a local company win a Federal Laboratory Consortium award for a rocket propulsion technology.


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    How to Make Soot and Stardust

    Scientists unlock mystery that could help reduce emissions of fine particles from combustion engines and other sources.

    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.


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