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21 January, 2016 - 15:50 By Kate Sweeney

New fuel cell tech promises cleaner, more efficient energy

Judith Driscoll

Novel fuel cell technology from the University of Cambridge promises to produce cleaner, more efficient energy, according to the team behind the breakthrough.

Co-inventors Professor Judith Driscoll and her colleague Dr Shinbuhm Lee in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy have created a new thin-film electrolyte material that helps solid oxide fuel cells operate more efficiently and cheaply than those composed of conventional materials.

The inventors say the technology has potential applications for portable power sources. The material was fully characterised using specialised nanoscopic measurements by collaborators at three different labs in the US. Detailed discussions with collaborators at Imperial College also provided support.

Cambridge Enterprise – the university’s commercialisation arm – is working with Professor Driscoll to take the technology to market, seeking to collaborate with a fuel cell manufacturer with expertise in thin-film techniques to validate the new material.

Professor Driscoll (pictured above) has just been awarded the inaugural Royal Academy of Engineering Armourers and Brasiers Company Prize for “revolutionising the properties of high temperature superconductors, enabling them to carry much higher currents in a magnetic field.”

She says the new materials discovered at the university offer the possibility of either significantly improving the efficiency of current high-temperature fuel cell systems or achieving the same performance levels at much lower temperatures, around 300 degrees Celsius. Either of these approaches could enable much lower fuel consumption and waste energy.
Solid oxide fuel cells comprise a cathode and anode with an electrolyte material sandwiched between them. The electrolyte transports oxygen ions from the cathode to the anode, generating an electric charge.

Compared to conventional batteries, fuel cells have the potential to run indefinitely if supplied by a source of fuel such as hydrogen or a hydrocarbon, and a source of oxygen.
By using thin-film electrolyte layers, micro solid oxide fuel cells offer a concentrated energy source, with potential applications in portable power sources for electronic consumer or medical devices, or those that need uninterruptable power supplies such as those used by the military or in recreational vehicles.

Dr Charlanne Ward, a senior technology associate with Cambridge Enterprise  which is managing a patent filed in the US, said: “With low power requirements and low levels of polluting emissions, these fuel cells offer an environmentally attractive solution for many power source applications.

“This opportunity has the potential to revolutionise the power supply problem of portable electronics, by improving both the energy available from the power source and safety, compared with today’s battery solutions.”

Professor Driscoll (pictured above) added: “The ability to precisely engineer and tune highly crystalline materials at the nanoscale is absolutely key for next-generation power generation and storage of many different kinds.

“Our new methods and understanding have allowed us to exploit the very special properties of nanomaterials in a practical and stable thin-film configuration, resulting in a much improved oxygen ion conducting material.”

As the Royal Academy pointed out in honouring Professor Driscoll with its new award: “Her methods are now becoming widely used throughout the superconductor industry. Emerging applications include generators in wind turbines, motors and MRI, as well as in very high magnetic field magnets for basic science experiments.”

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