KNOXVILLE—One of the key holdups in the march toward more efficient sustainable energy could soon be answered, thanks in part to researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
The College of Engineering’s Alexander Papandrew and Gerd Duscher are part of a broader Oak Ridge National Laboratory-led team that recently received a $2.75 million U.S. Department of Energy grant for work on improving fuel cells, $1.4 million of which went to their project.
The basic premise of their work is to find a far more efficient way to turn chemical energy—in this case natural gas—into electrical energy.
“Current methods typically involve burning the gas to run a turbine in order to generate electricity, and then transporting the electricity,” said Papandrew, a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “We believe that is an inefficient way of going about it.
“We’re interested in converting natural gas directly to electricity using fuel cells. If we can improve our cells in the ways and to the levels that we hope to achieve, it could fundamentally change the way we get power.”
Papandrew and Duscher, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, have set a goal of improving current efficiency by 30 percent.
To get there will take a major leap forward in technology and capability, something the kind of grant they are working under was intended to do.
DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, grants are designed to reward major shifts in research and design. It’s a designation that brings plenty of both possibilities and challenges.
“They hold the work to high standards, and they fully expect that you come up with cutting-edge solutions,” said Papandrew. “You have to produce concrete, real-world ideas and prove that they work. That carries risk, but it can be very rewarding whenever a new approach comes forward to tackle problems.”
For the UT-ORNL team, that new approach is the way that they looked at electrodes and catalysts.
Catalysts speed up the reactions converting chemical energy into electrical energy. In an electrode, catalysts are integrated with an electrolyte that conducts ions and an interconnect that conducts electrons to form a circuit.
Platinum is currently used as the catalyst in many electrochemical devices. In this case, it is present in costly amounts that leave significant room for improvement, as the team sees it. For its design, ORNL is providing the nanostructure “scaffolding” surrounding the UT-provided electrolytes.
The devices the team is testing are the size of a coin but the internal structures that they are engineering are significantly smaller. So small, in fact, that Duscher uses ion beams to slice sections bit by microscopic bit.
“Working together with ORNL, we’ve been able to come up with a concept that should improve output by almost one-third, while at the same time seeing a tenfold reduction in the amount of platinum we have to use,” said Papandrew. “That’s the kind of game-changing technology we hope and think we can provide.”
As far as what the long-term implications of such a drastic improvement could mean, Papandrew pointed out how such a field shift could affect the way people power their houses.
By being able to take their cells and group them in housings roughly the size of a pillow, it would be possible to power an average-sized house via natural gas delivered by pipeline or stored in a tank on the premises.
Not only that, but the heat generated by the process could also be used in the home.
It’s an application that could prove useful not only for homeowners, but campers, hunters, military and emergency personnel, and those in developing countries or in areas without established power grids.