Research aims for better fuel cells

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla are working to develop a cheaper and more efficient fuel cell thanks to a US Department of Energy grant of $2.8 million.

The three-year project, which includes one other university, two national research laboratories in the US and a private fuel cell maker 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. The goal for UMR researchers is to create a fuel cell that operates at 750 degrees Celsius (842 degrees Fahrenheit) or below.

One major drawback to current fuel cell technology is that it requires extremely high temperatures, as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius (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,’ said 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.’

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 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 problems in the United States and elsewhere has renewed interest in fuel cells as an alternative energy source, said Anderson.

Vehicle 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 said.

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 added.