Researchers develop 'MRI' for fuel cells

Jun 16, 2006

As gasoline prices top $3 a gallon in major cities, the drive toward increasing energy efficiency and reducing air pollution has accelerated, and the development of fuel cells has become a major focus worldwide.

Knowing how fuel cells work is key to improving their performance and reducing the cost of their production. Now a research team led by Scott A. Barnett, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, has produced the first three-dimensional images of the interior of a fuel cell -- providing a new tool for the study and development of fuel cells.

The researchers' three-dimensional reconstruction of a solid oxide fuel cell anode was reported in a paper published this month by the journal Nature Materials. (A solid oxide fuel cell efficiently converts fuels such as hydrogen and natural gas directly into electricity; Barnett's group also recently reported a similar fuel cell that works with a liquid transportation fuel -- iso-octane, a high-purity compound similar to gasoline.)

"Much like magnetic resonance imaging produces a view inside the human body, we now can look inside fuel cells," said Barnett. "The dual-beam focused-ion-beam microscope used in the study provides much higher resolution than an MRI, showing nanometer-scale features. These pictures will help us and other researchers to unravel how fuel cells work so they can eventually be improved and made to work longer without failing."

The imaging technique also will enable manufacturers to maintain quality by checking batches of fuel cells for any structural changes that might hurt the fuel cells' characteristics.

The materials comprising fuel cells have become increasingly sophisticated, both in composition and microstructure. Determining this microstructure is a critical, yet usually missing, link between materials properties and processing and electrode performance, said Barnett. Current methods of microstructural analysis, such as scanning electron microscopy, provide only two-dimensional images of the microstructure, limiting understanding of how regions are interconnected in three-dimensional space.

A fuel cell is like a battery that can be replenished with fresh fuel. It consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte material that conducts ions between them. Oxygen enters at the cathode, where it combines with electrons and is split into ions that travel through the electrolyte to react with fuel at the anode. Fuel cells are environmentally friendly: water and carbon dioxide are the only by-products. In the process, the oxygen ions traversing the electrolyte produce a useful current.

Source: Northwestern University

Explore further: Improving insulation materials, down to wetting crossed fibers

Related Stories

Solar Impulse reaches half way in Japan-US leg

13 hours ago

A solar-powered aircraft flying between Japan and Hawaii as part of a round-the-world bid passed the halfway point of the perilous Pacific Ocean crossing Wednesday, and smashed its own endurance record.

Four reasons why the Terminator is already here

6 hours ago

As Terminator: Genisys hits cinemas around the world, ScienceNetwork WA looks at some of the feats performed by robots in the Terminator films, and investigates how long until reality catches up with scienc ...

Recommended for you

How oversized atoms could help shrink

8 hours ago

"Lab-on-a-chip" devices – which can carry out several laboratory functions on a single, micro-sized chip – are the result of a quiet scientific revolution over the past few years. For example, they enable ...

Physicists shatter stubborn mystery of how glass forms

Jun 29, 2015

A physicist at the University of Waterloo is among a team of scientists who have described how glasses form at the molecular level and provided a possible solution to a problem that has stumped scientists ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.