Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a catalyst able to speed up oxygen processing inside fuel cell reactions.
The catalyst, which use small amounts of rare earth metals, is particularly relevant to Solid Oxide Fuel Cells which convert natural gas (methane) and other hydrocarbon fuels into electricity.
According to a press release:
“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.
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.
The new fuel cell catalyst, a coating only about two dozen nanometers thick, works in two phases. First, nanoparticles on top grab molecular oxygen from the air and tear it into single oxygen ions. Then, oxygen vacancies in the nanoparticle rapidly pass the oxygen ions to the second phase, a layer of oxygen vacancies which move the ions quickly to meet with ionic hydrogen to complete the chemical process that powers fuel cells.
Looking Ahead at the Possibilities
Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) are well positioned for stationary applications that use natural gas as the fuel. In addition to reliability and dispatchability, SOFCs allow us to use natural gas more efficiently by converting it electrochemically at point of use – instead of converting it via combustion at a centralized power plant.
While Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells are widely considered the platform of choice in transportation applications, there is still a scenario where low temperature SOFCs emerge as a viable option for vehicles. Not likely, but plausible!
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