Next Generation Natural Gas Fuel Cells
Mark Atwater posted on January 28, 2015 |

Higher efficiency is the Holy Grail, and achieving that end is not easy, so advancements in sustainability these days usually have to be pretty clever. Researchers at the University of Tennessee are shifting the way they look at the problem with the goal of getting more out of natural gas and paying less.

Much of the electricity produced is created by generating steam which drives turbines that create that electricity which is then transported to homes. Not exactly a straightforward way to go about it, but it has worked for decades. According to a UT news article, researchers there are looking to get rid of the middle man.

Alexander Papandrew, a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, describes it this way, “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.”

The project is funded by a $2.75M from a DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant split between UT and Oak Ridge National Lab, and the goal is to rethink the way natural gas is used in generating power. Instead of using it indirectly, through burning at power plants, they would like to utilize it directly at the point of use. That will require better fuel cells, and they plan to improve on current performance by 30%.

To deliver that improvement they will be reassessing electrode and catalyst design. The catalyst integrated with the electrolyte is commonly platinum, and that presents a clear target for cost reduction either through alternative materials or reduced usage.

Though the technology is not described in detail, it is stated that UT researchers are focusing on the electrolyte and colleagues at ORNL will be working on the accompanying scaffolding. By using the combination of a nanostructured electrode and improved catalyst, they expect to see a “ten-fold reduction” in the platinum used while realizing the desired increase in performance.

The end product would be a fuel cell no larger than a pillow that could operate directly off of a natural gas line to generate power for an average home. The process creates heat as well, which may be useful in heating the home or for other applications (or a liability, depending on climate). With natural gas enjoying a surge in popularity, finding an efficient use for it is certainly a welcome development.


Image: University of Tennessee

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