The potential next generation fuel cell has many advantages, but one big disadvantage. Researchers from 5 countries are working hard to find the solution.
Hydrogen is one of the key alternative sources for renewable fuel. Hydrogen is both cheap and universal, and could bring great opportunities to change the life in our entire planet. However, it is currently produced from fossil fuels (steam reforming). Therefore, we need to develop technologies that can both produce and utilize cleaner and more effective hydrogen.
A fuel cell is a device that can give power, electricity or heat by the use of a fuel through a chemical reaction with only water as byproduct. Some of these fuel cells can be powered by hydrogen and they are starting to appear in our daily lives to power, for instance, some vehicles. These fuel cells are called PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells.
The challenge with PEM fuel cells, however, is that they need to use expensive metal catalysts such as platinum or gold to carry out the chemical reaction and therefore, provide energy.
The advantages of the next generation fuel cells
Solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) are a possible next generation fuel cells. They might overcome the current issues of PEM fuel cells.
There are three main benefits with the solid oxide fuel cells:
- They use cheap and sustainable materials such as ceramic oxides instead of those expensive metal catalysts.
- They are based on a reversible system that can be used to produce a fuel when the system is used in the opposite direction and therefore will work as a electrolyzer. For instance, very pure hydrogen can be produced if the fuel cell is fed with water and the system is supplied with energy. In the future it could be thought to use a reversible fuel cell in a vehicle. In this manner it could be possible to fill with hydrogen the deposit of your car by just plugging it to a water and electricity source and then use this hydrogen when you want to use your vehicle.
- The system can be very environmentally efficient if the electricity needed in the electrolyzer to produce hydrogen comes from a renewable source such as wind mills or solar panels. The formation of these high pure hydrogen is also an extra advantage to use the excess of energy that renewable energy may produce for later use it as a fuel when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine. This ability can open a very wide window of applications as for instance, provide clean and cheap energy to power our houses.
Problem and problem solving
However, some challenges need to be overcome in order to make solid oxide fuel cell a revolutionary technology. These challenges are related to the fact that SOFC needs to be operated at high temperatures (~800 ºC). At those high operating temperatures, it is not possible to use cheap insulating materials and the sealing becomes an important issue. Therefore, it is crucial to find new materials that can operate at lower temperature without losing the performance of the current devices.
Several scientists at NTNU are working on giving a solution to these issues on the frame of the FOXCET project. FOXCET (Functional OXide for Clean Energy Technologies: fuel cells, gas separation membranes and electrolyzers) is a national project funded by the Research Council of Norway. NTNU, SINTEF and the University of Oslo are the partners in this project that has a budget of 35 million NOK and a duration of 4 years.
The project involves the education of 4 PhDs students and 2 Postdoctoral researchers and counts with the collaboration of several international research institutes and universities from countries as diverse as Germany, Spain, USA or Japan. All the PhD and postdocs in the project have had the opportunity to travel to these countries to improve their research.
Improved materials by nanotechnology
The FOXCET approach is to understand the different processes taking place in these devices and with the help of nanotechnology come up with improved materials. The first results obtained and already published in scientific publications are starting to show that this understanding can lead to better materials.
This blog post is written by Carlos Bernuy-Lopez
Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, NTNU.