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: Researchers develop scalable methods for manufacturing metamaterials

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

Apr 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...

Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

Apr 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —For thousands of years humans have been tinkering with plant genetics, even when they didn't realize that is what they were doing, in an effort to make stronger, healthier crops that endured climates better, ...

Recommended for you

Novel technique opens door to better solar cells

Apr 14, 2014

A team of scientists, led by Assistant Professor Andrivo Rusydi from the Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Faculty of Science, has successfully developed a technique to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...