Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Emory chemistry receives $7.5 million to lead fuel cell research

"A deeper understanding of electrochemical processes is important in the quest for more efficient, renewable forms of energy," says Emory physical chemist Tim Lian, shown in his lab. Photo by Stephen Nowland, Emory Photo/Video.

By Carol Clark

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded $7.5 million to Tianquan (Tim) Lian, professor of physical chemistry at Emory University, to lead an investigation of electrochemical processes underlying fuel-cell technology. The award comes through the DoD’s highly competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI. The program funds teams of investigators from more than one discipline to accelerate the research process.

“A deeper understanding of electrochemical processes is important in the quest for more efficient, renewable forms of energy,” Lian says. His lab develops sum-frequency generation spectroscopy to selectively probe reactions on the surface of an electrode. The technique can provide insights into the fundamental steps involved in energy generation, conversion and storage technologies — ranging from solar cells, to fuel cells and batteries.

Fuel cell electric vehicles use a fuel cell instead of a battery — or in combination with a battery — to generate electricity for power. While they have lower emissions and higher fuel-efficiency than internal-combustion engines, fuel cell vehicles are currently limited to lighter fuels, such as hydrogen.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research accepted the MURI proposal from Lian, principal investigator of the project, and his colleagues from five other universities, including Yale, Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. Together, the researchers encompass the disciplines of advanced spectroscopy, electrochemical mass spectroscopy and electrochemical theory to model, test and interpret reactions.

“Bringing together experimentalists and theorists with different backgrounds gives us the expertise to tackle more challenging problems,” Lian says.

The concept of fuel cells was first demonstrated in 1801, while the invention of the first working fuel cell occurred in 1842, when William Grove showed that an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen could produce an electric current. NASA later developed fuel cell applications for the space program.

“Electrochemistry goes way back in science, and has many important applications, but our understanding of it remains largely empirical,” Lian says. “The Air Force wants to make a concerted effort to advance the field by boosting our understanding of electrochemical processes at the molecular and atomic level.”

The research team will develop software for electrochemical platforms as an experimental tool to gather data at the microscopic scale of processes such as the current-voltage curve generated in an electrochemical cell. The team will also develop theoretical tools to interpret the data. They will apply these experimental and theoretical tools to study fuel-cell technologies that use methanol and ethanol directly as fuels. These fuels are more energy dense than hydrogen, giving them the potential to greatly improve the range of fuel-cell vehicles, although their use in fuel-cell technology currently suffers from poorly understood side reactions that occur on electrode surfaces.

The software and theoretical tools that Lian’s team develops will be open source, allowing researchers in other labs to use it to simulate their own electrochemical experiments as well as interpret their data.

Providing these tools to the broader electrochemical industry will support widespread efforts for innovation and discovery, Lian says. “We hope to make a lasting impact in the field, opening doors to do things with electrochemistry that are currently out of reach.”

Over the past 30 years, DoD’s MURI program has brought significant new capabilities to U.S. military forces and opened up new lines of research. Notable examples include foundations in the fabrication of nanoscale and microscale structures by the processes of self-assembled materials and microcontact printing, the integration of vision algorithms with sensors to create low-power, low-latency, compact adaptive vision systems, and advances in fully optical data control and switching.

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