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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.
    • 2018-10-25 11:30:13
    • Article ID: 702797

    Finally, a Robust Fuel Cell that Runs on Methane at Practical Temperatures

    • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

      Practical and affordable to run: The new fuel cell in the lab of Meilin Liu at Georgia Tech.

    • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

      Graduate research assistant Ben deGlee hooks up electrodes to a testing unit used to test the new fuel cell in Meilin Liu's lab at Georgia Tech.

    • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

      Postdoctoral researcher Yu Chen sets up the new fuel cell in a unit used to test it in Meilin Liu's lab at Georgia Tech.

    • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

      Principal investigator Meilin Liu holds up an example of the new fuel cell in his lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

    • Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

      Principal Investigator Meilin Liu in his office at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Liu is a Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech's School of Material Science and Engineering.

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

      Though not involved in this particular research project, 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: Georgia Tech / Liu lab

      Cascading innovations, including a brand new one, allowed researchers to reimagine the fuel cell, making it run on methane at lower temperatures. The ruthenium-nickel based catalyst, here in green, was the latest single materials innovation in the new fuel cell.

    Fuel cells have not been particularly known for their practicality and affordability, but that may have just changed. There’s a new cell that runs on cheap fuel at temperatures comparable to automobile engines and which slashes materials costs.

    Though the cell is in the lab, it has high potential to someday electrically power homes and perhaps cars, say the researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who led its development. In a new study in the journal Nature Energy the researchers detailed how they reimagined the entire fuel cell with the help of a newly invented fuel catalyst.

    The catalyst has dispensed with high-priced hydrogen fuel by making its own out of cheap, readily available methane. And improvements throughout the cell cooled the seething operating temperatures that are customary in methane fuel cells dramatically, a striking engineering accomplishment.

    Methane fuel cells usually require temperatures of 750 to 1,000 degrees Celsius to run. This new one needs only about 500, which is even a notch cooler than automobile combustion engines, which run at around 600 degrees Celsius.

    That lower temperature could trigger cascading cost savings in the ancillary technology needed to operate a fuel cell, potentially pushing the new cell to commercial viability. The researchers feel confident that engineers can design electric power units around this fuel cell with reasonable effort, something that has eluded previous methane fuel cells.

    ‘Sensation in our world’

    “Our cell could make for a straightforward, robust overall system that uses cheap stainless steel to make interconnectors,” said Meilin Liu, who led the study and is a Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Material Science and Engineering. Interconnectors are parts that help bring together many fuel cells into a stack, or functional unit.

    “Above 750 degrees Celsius, no metal would withstand the temperature without oxidation, so you’d have a lot of trouble getting materials, and they would be extremely expensive and fragile, and contaminate the cell,” Liu said.

    “Lowering the temperature to 500 degrees Celsius is a sensation in our world. Very few people have even tried it,” said Ben deGlee, a graduate research assistant in Liu’s lab and one of the first authors of the study. “When you get that low, it makes the job of the engineer designing the stack and connected technologies much easier.”

    The new cell also eliminates the need for a major ancillary device called a steam reformer, which is normally needed to convert methane and water into hydrogen fuel.

    Liu, deGlee, co-first author Yu Chen, who is a postdoctoral researcher in Liu’s lab, and co-first author Yu Tang of the University of Kansas published the results of their research on October 29, 2018. Their work was funded by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), both in the U.S. Department of Energy. It was also funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry.

    ‘Distributed generation’

    The research was based on a type of fuel cell with high potential for commercial viability, the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). SOFCs are known for their versatility in fuels they can use.

    If it goes to market, though the new cell might not power automobiles for a while, it could land sooner in basements as part of a more decentralized, cleaner, cheaper electrical power grid. The fuel cell stack itself would be about the size of a shoebox, plus ancillary technology to make it run.

    “The hope is you could install this device like a tankless water heater. It would run off of natural gas to power your house,” Liu said. “That would save society and industry the enormous cost of new power plants and large electrical grid expansions.”

    “It would make homes and businesses more power independent,” Liu said. “That kind of system would be called distributed generation, and our sponsors want to develop that.”

    Homemade hydrogen

    Hydrogen is the best fuel for powering fuel cells, but its cost is exorbitant. The researchers figured out how to convert methane to hydrogen in the fuel cell itself via the new catalyst, which is made with cerium, nickel and ruthenium and has the chemical formula Ce0.9Ni0.05Ru0.05O2, abbreviated CNR.

    When methane and water molecules come into contact with the catalyst and heat, nickel chemically cleaves the methane molecule. Ruthenium does the same with water. The resulting parts come back together as that very desirable hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which the researchers surprisingly put to good use.

    “CO causes performance problems in most fuel cells, but here, we’re using it as a fuel,” Chen said.

    Making electricity

    H2 and CO continue on to further catalyst layers that make up the anode, the part of the fuel cell that yanks off electrons, making the carbon monoxide and hydrogen positively charged ions. The electrons travel via a wire -- creating the electricity flow -- toward the cathode.

    There, oxygen, which is very electron-hungry, sucks up the electrons, closing the electrical circuit and becoming O2- ions. Ionized hydrogen and oxygen meet and exit the system as water condensation; the carbon monoxide and oxygen ions meet to become pure carbon dioxide, which could be captured.

    For the energy produced, fuel cell technology creates far, far less carbon dioxide than combustion engines.

    In some fuel cells, the water in the initial reactions must be introduced from the outside. In this new fuel cell, it’s replenished in the last reaction phase, which forms water that cycles back to react with the methane.

    Catalysts converge

    The new catalyst, CNR, manufactured by research collaborators at the University of Kansas, is the outer layer of the anode side of the cell and doubles as a protectant against decay, extending the life of the cell. CNR has strong cohort catalysts in inner layers and on the other side of the cell, the cathode.

    On the cathode end, oxygen’s reaction and movement through the system are usually notoriously slow, but Liu’s lab has recently sped it up to raise the electricity output by using what’s called nanofiber cathodes, which Liu’s lab developed in a prior study. (See prior study: A tailored double perovskite nanofiber catalyst enables ultrafast oxygen evolution.)

    “The structures of these various catalysts, as well as the nanofiber cathodes, all together allowed us to drop the operating temperature,” Chen said.

    These following people coauthored the research: Bote Zhao, Lei Zhang, Seonyoung Yoo, Kai Pei, Jun Hyuk Kim and Yong Ding of Georgia Tech; Yuechang Wei and Franklin Feng Tao of the University of Kansas, and Ziyun Wang and P. Hu of The Queen’s University of Belfast. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy under the following agencies and programs: Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) REBELS program (award DE-AR0000502), and SECA Core Technology Program (award DE-FE0031201), the Catalysis program of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (grant DE- SC0014561). It was also funded by the Division of Chemistry of the National Science Foundation (award 1462121). Any results, conclusions, and opinions are those of the authors and not necessarily of the funding agencies.

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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Scientists Produce 3-D Chemical Maps of Single Bacteria

    Scientists at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)--a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--have used ultrabright x-rays to image single bacteria with higher spatial resolution than ever before. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrates an x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XRF), as an effective approach to produce 3-D images of small biological samples.

    Self-Sensing Materials Are Here

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers invented a way to make a nanomaterial-embedded composite that is stronger than other fiber-reinforced composites and imbued with a new capability--the ability to monitor its own structural health.

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    Climate Simulations Project Wetter, Windier Hurricanes

    New supercomputer simulations by climate scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that climate change intensified the amount of rainfall in recent hurricanes such as Katrina, Irma, and Maria by 5 to 10 percent. They further found that if those hurricanes were to occur in a future world that is warmer than present, those storms would have even more rainfall and stronger winds.

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    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    X-Rays Show How Periods of Stress Changed an Ice Age Hyena to the Bone

    An international team has unearthed what life might have been like for a now-extinct subspecies of spotted hyena. They found that despite their massive size, some cave hyenas experienced times of hardship that affected them to the bone, causing areas of arrested growth that appear as dark lines, like rings on a tree trunk.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.


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    Argonne's Min Si receives early career award from IEEE Computer Society

    Argonne's Min Si wins Award for Excellence for Early Career Researchers in High Performance Computing through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

    Jefferson Lab Director Appointed to Distinguished Professorship

    Stuart Henderson, director of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been appointed the Governor's Distinguished CEBAF professor at Old Dominion University. The position is supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia and is named for the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, which is the main research facility located at Jefferson Lab.

    DOE issues call for HPC for Energy Innovation proposals

    The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) High Performance Computing for Energy Innovation (HPC4EI) Initiative today issued its first joint solicitation for the High Performance Computing for Manufacturing Program (HPC4Mfg) and the High Performance Computing for Materials Program (HPC4Mtls).

    DOE funding advances project to turn captured CO2 into key chemicals

    The U.S. Department of Energy has selected Southern Research for an award of up to $1.5 million to advance technology for carbon dioxide utilization.

    Sierra Reaches Higher Altitudes, Takes Number Two Spot on List of Fastest Supercomputers

    Sierra, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's newest supercomputer, rose to second place on the list of the world's fastest computing systems, TOP500 List representatives announced Monday at the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis conference (SC18) in Dallas.

    Green energy: Wind energy agreement will provide savings, 50 percent of electricity needs for Kansas State University Manhattan campus

    Kansas State University has signed an agreement with Westar Energy to provide approximately 50 percent of the energy needs for the university's main Manhattan campus from a wind farm in Nemaha County and save the university nearly $200,000 annually.

    INCITE grants awarded to 62 computational research projects

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced new projects for 2019 through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program.

    Argonne's Raj Kettimuthu Named ACM Distinguished Member

    Argonne computer scientist Raj Kettimuthu recently was named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery for his development of tools to analyze and enhance end-to-end data transfer performance.

    Jefferson Lab-Affiliated Researchers Honored as APS Fellows

    The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility now has a few more fellows on campus. The American Physical Society, a professional membership society that works on behalf of the physics community, recently announced its list of 2018 fellowships.

    Jefferson Lab Receives DOE Award for Energy Efficient Upgrade

    On Oct. 23, a team from the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility was honored at the 2018 Federal Energy and Water Management Award Ceremony for upgrades made to the lab's data center, ultimately improving its energy efficiency.


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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Diverse Biofeedstocks Have High Ethanol Yields and Offer Biorefineries Flexibility

    Evidence suggests that biorefineries can accept various feedstocks without negatively impacting the amount of ethanol produced per acre.

    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.

    Very Heavy Elements Deliver More Electrons

    Scientists revise understanding of the limits of bonding for very electron-rich heavy elements.

    Probing Water's "No-Man's Land" Temperature Region

    Measuring the physical properties of water at previously unexplored temperatures offers insights into one of the world's essential liquids.

    Novel Soil Bacteria with Unusual Genes Synthesize Unique Antibiotic Precursors

    A large-scale soil project uncovered genetic information from bacteria with the capacity to make specialized molecules that could lead to new pharmaceuticals.

    Warmer Temperatures Lengthen Growing Season, Increase Plants' Vulnerability to Frost

    Experimental warming treatments show how peatland forests may respond to future environmental change.

    Rising Stars Seek to Learn from the Master: Mother Nature

    A trio of scientists was recognized for their early career successes in uncovering how microbes produce fuel, insights that could change our energy portfolio


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