Fuel cells have long been heralded as the energy technology of the future.
Invented in 1838, the cells promise an almost limitless supply of clean energy for everything from cars to electrical grids, but have always proven too expensive to manufacture, fuel and maintain to enter mainstream use. Hoping to bring down those costs, a team of
The tool developed by professors
"I know a lot about fuel cells, and through experience I've gained an intuition for what matters, but I need to quantify and communicate that to people," Gross said. "I can do it experimentally but it's slow. If I could make it faster, the impact would be much greater."
"The kinds of experiments we're doing really will help shape the way fuel cells are made, run and optimized in the future," said
Other researchers have taken notice, not only of the project's lofty goals, but of its practical potential for accelerating experimentation. Energy science and trade publication Renewable Energy Global Innovations (http://reginnovations.org/key-scientific-articles/model-predict-percolation-threshold-effective-conductivity-infiltrated-electrodes-solid-oxide-fuel-cells/) named the
"The benefit of doing a model is not only to look at the range of parameters you typically would examine in the lab, but also to do things that you don't typically try to do," Snyder said. "If the model says we're 10 times more efficient if we operate under a totally different condition than we thought about before, then it's worth putting effort into trying to do that in the lab."
Fuel cells require greater refinement, Gross added, because they require expensive components and maintenance. The cells produce power by combining oxygen with a fuel -- Gross focuses on hydrocarbons, but hydrogen and alcohol are also used -- in chemical reactions that release electricity. But to create those reactions, current generation hydrocarbon fuel cells must operate at intense temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius. These temperatures force manufacturers to build fuel cell electrodes using either costly rare earth metals that can handle the heat or cheaper materials that degrade quickly.
"All of the problems holding back this fuel cell technology relate back to this very high operating temperature," Gross said. "We're trying to develop materials and composites that can efficiently work at lower temperatures to mitigate the degradation issues and the high cost of these exotic materials."
Though they've been put to use everywhere from
"Green technology sounds nice, but until it reaches the point of affordability, there won't be widespread commercialization," Gross said.
The researchers said they will continue refining their modeling software, though they admit that the first truly commercially viable fuel cells will be a larger effort requiring the work of many more scientists from around the world. Even their software, the
"Neither one of us could have done this on our own," said Snyder, whose expertise is not in fuel cells but in computer simulation. "It was our working together that made it happen."
The student researchers too played an active role, developing and encoding most of the program, and co-authoring the paper describing it.
"It really felt like it was mine," Synodis said. "They had come up with the idea, but we built the whole thing from the ground up. It was nice to be a part of a partnership with professors rather than just being taught or told what to do."
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