Making a cleaner, cheaper fuel cell

provided by University of Missouri-Rolla

ueled by a $2.8 million grant from the US Department of Energy, researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla are working to develop a cheaper and more efficient fuel cell – a technology that holds promise as a clean, alternative energy source.

    The three-year project, which began last October and involves one other university, two national research laboratories and a private fuel cell maker, is part of a national effort by the Energy Department. The initiative aims to make fuel cells an economical power source by the end of this decade. The UMR-led project involves the fabrication and testing of solid oxide fuel cells, with the ultimate goal of developing a cell capable of producing 5 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power an average house – at a cost of about $400 per kilowatt-hour.

    Fuel cells function much like conventional batteries. Unlike batteries, however, they do not run down or require recharging. They also are efficient at creating electricity and are cleaner sources of energy than coal, which is the primary source of electric power. Fuel cells consist of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte, or membrane. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.

    The goal for UMR researchers is to create a fuel cell that operates at a cool 842 degrees Fahrenheit or below. One major drawback to current fuel cell technology is that it requires extremely high temperatures, as high as 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, to get the zirconium membrane to convert gas into electricity. But the UMR-led consortium is attempting to build a cell that not only functions at cooler temperatures, but also is less costly to build.

    “The reason fuel cells have not entered into the marketplace is because of the costs involved,” says Dr. Harlan Anderson, Curators' Professor emeritus of ceramic engineering and director of UMR's Electronic Materials Applied Research Laboratory (EMARC). “The end result of this project will be a demonstration of the technology,” says Anderson, who is leading the research effort.

    The three-year project is a $3.5 million effort in all, with the $2.8 million federal grant matched by $700,000 in funds from UMR, EMARC and two of the consortium members, Akers Industries Inc. of Oakland, CA, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Working with UMR, UC-Boulder and Akers on the project is the Energy Department's National Renewable Energies Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

    The recent energy crunch in the United States and elsewhere has renewed interest in fuel cells as an alternative energy source, says Anderson. Automobile manufacturers are already in the process of developing vehicles that are powered by fuel cells. In the future, some vehicles may use fuel cells as part of a “hybrid” system, combined with traditional gas engines.

    “The automobiles are using more electricity than they ever have, and it would be nice to have an additional power supply,” Anderson says.

    In addition, the Energy Department is interested in developing a stand-alone power generator for the trucking industry that would be more efficient than the typical diesel engine, he says.

    In the UMR project, Anderson and his team on campus will manage the overall effort as well as characterize and select the materials to be used in construction of the fuel cell. Working with Anderson is Dr. Vladimir Petrovsky, a UMR research professor working with EMARC, and some graduate students. Akers Industries will fabricate the fuel cells, while the National Renewable Energies Laboratory and the University of Colorado-Boulder develop the membrane technology for the cells. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, meanwhile, will develop the interconnection for the fuel cells. Once the cells are created, UMR researchers will test them and report the results to the Energy Department.