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New stable fuel cell could be the breakthrough that makes energy storage economically feasible

There are many researchers from all around the world that are constantly working on their own fuel cell designs in an effort to try and make something that truly works, in the sense of delivering certain levels of power while maintaining stability and showing overall efficiency. Now a group of researchers from the McCormick School of Engineering in Northwestern University have come up with a new type of fuel cell that is said to offer both exceptional power densities as well as long-term stability at optimal temperatures.

According to the researchers, their creation effectively heightens the viability of incorporating fuel cells into a sustainable energy future. In other words, it has enormous potential to introduce far-reaching changes to the renewable energy industry if it can be implemented properly. Sossina Haile, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering as well as Applied Physics, said that their work could go a long way towards shaping the future of fuel cell technology.

“For years, industry has told us that the holy grail is getting fuel cells to work at 500-degrees Celsius and with high power density, which means longer life and less expensive components,” she said. “With this research, we can now envision a path to making cost-effective fuel cells and transforming the energy landscape.”

The details of the new fuel cell were shared by the researchers in a paper titled, “Exceptional power density and stability at intermediate temperatures in protonic ceramic fuel cells,” which was published recently in the journal Nature Energy. The study was led by author Sihyuk Choi, a post-doctoral fellow in Haile’s laboratory. This new effort follows an older study that was able to show the potential of some protonic ceramic fuel cells to serve as environmentally sustainable and cost-effective sources of electric power – the only problem was that the high electrolyte conductivity of those cells didn’t meet expected power outputs.

In order to successfully reach their targets, Haile’s team needed to solve the problems of the previous research. It was known that some electrolytes have high conductivity at temperatures as high as 500-degrees Celsius, said Haile, but that the fault lies in the electrodes that simply weren’t working well in the complete fuel cell.

To fix this, Haile’s team used a combination of a high-activity cathode – the double-perovskite cathode PBSCF – and a chemically stable electrolyte called the BZCYYb4411. They used this combination in order to produce “exceptional power density” as well as stability in the specific temperature range they needed. With the use of the novel electrolyte, ions were allowed to move quickly and yet remain stable even after many hundreds of hours of operation, which wasn’t the case with many previous electrolytes.

Haile referred to their choice of changing out the electrode as a stroke of genius. “We solved multiple problems simultaneously by changing out the electrode, improving the electrolyte and creating good contact and communication between the two materials,” she said. She also wanted to emphasize the fact that they were able to demonstrate a clear path for realizing the potential of fuel cells to regenerate clean electricity.

For now, the researchers are planning on figuring out how to scale their solutions for bigger applications. According to Haile, their next challenge is to develop scalable manufacturing routes, as they are looking to do it in the most cost-effective manner. Part of their work also involves trying to make fuel cells reversible. They are simply excited to think about the possibilities in store for their research.

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