New Fuel Cell Stores Energy

In the world of clean energy, solid oxide fuel cells are a key research area in developing ways to produce energy cheaply and efficiently. Recent research from a group of materials scientists at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has gone one step further with the development of a cell that stores energy as it converts hydrogen into electricity.

The new cell, which continued to generate power for a short time even after researchers cut the fuel supply, could set a new path in the development of portable energy sources in environments where fuel access is limited, according to SEAS professor Shriram Ramanathan, the principal investigator for the project.

Ramanathan, lead researcher, SEAS post-doctoral fellow Quentin Van Overmeere, and SEAS graduate student Kian Kerman detailed the results in a paper published online in the journal Nano Letters in June.

The team had been working with the compound vanadium oxide for a number of years when they decided to use it in a solid oxide fuel cell.

Though the paper posited different theories as to the mechanism of this new cell’s energy storage, the team still lacks a definite answer.

“We think that the ability of vanadium oxide to change its valence state and possibly also store hydrogen locally can contribute to this effect,” Ramanathan said. “In the context of an energy application, this ability of vanadium to change its oxidation state is extremely valuable.”

According to Van Overmeere, further exploration of this phenomenon is the next logical step for their team.

“We definitely need to know more about the mechanism,” Van Overmeere said.

Ramanathan agreed, saying that further experimentation could yield better results.

“This could lead the way to designing improved materials that would lead to an even better performance,” Ramanathan said. “We could also explore integrating these type of layers into high performance devices and see if that gives you better results in terms of fuel utilization.”

Ramanathan said that at this stage, the results are only a “proof of concept.”

With further research, the potential technologies opened up by this development could ultimately find a home in areas and applications where fuel access is constrained.

“In many robotics systems and so forth, there’s a great need for power sources in unconventional environments,” Ramanathan said. “The capability of storing fuel and being able to release it on demand for energy generation would be game changing.”

—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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