Fuel cells, devices that change chemical energy directly into electricity, are one of a number of energy technologies being researched by scientists at Montana State University.
The idea behind fuel cells has been around for more than a century. Pass a fuel, usually hydrogen, and oxygen through the cell. There, catalysts separate the hydrogen's positively charged protons from the negatively charged electrons. The resulting imbalance in charge creates an electrical current that can be harnessed for use, and the only waste product is water.
But development of these clean and efficient sources of energy has been held back because they are expensive and not very durable.
Paul Gannon, an assistant professor at MSU, checks one of high-temperature kilns he uses to test the longevity of fuel cell components.
MSU's fuel cell research — which is focused mostly on one type of cell, the solid oxide fuel cell or SOFC — aims to fix those problems and make fuel cells an affordable and practical source of energy for the 21st century.
MSU researchers are engineering the ceramic and metallic components of these fuel cells to make them resistant to the degradation mechanisms that shorten their lifetime. Researchers at MSU are also developing protective coatings that can help parts survive the 1,500-degree Fahrenheit temperatures inside an operating fuel cell.
Electrical engineers at MSU are developing technologies that work with the power produced by fuel cells, such as DC-to-AC power converters and computer models of SOFCs that can be used to study applications such as distributed power generation and fuel cell vehicles.
Dr. Ryan Anderson is an assistant professor in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department and manages a low temperature PEM fuel cell lab. The focus is on the transport phenomena occurring within the cell, and how that relates to overall performance. Dr. Anderson can be reached at 406-994-5701 or email@example.com. Website: http://www.chbe.montana.edu/staff/anderson.html
Dr. Paul Gannon, an associate professor in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, manages MSU's high temperature corrosion and corrosion protection laboratory. There, Dr. Gannon develops protective surface coatings to prevent corrosion on metallic components that are vital to solid oxide fuel cell systems and many other high-temperature energy conversion devices.
In the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Hongwei Gao develops power converters for solid oxide fuel cell systems. These DC-to-AC converters condition the power produced by fuel cells. Dr. Gao has developed soft-switched converters for residential fuel cell power systems and is working on modular inverters for large-scale fuel cell systems. Dr. Gao can be reached at 406-994-5973 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.coe.montana.edu/ee/hgao/
Physics professor Dr. Yves Idzerda researches high-performance, low-cost solid oxide fuel cells. He focuses on the places in fuel cells where different materials meet “the "interfaces." These areas can degrade during fuel cell operation, which reduces the cell's performance and life-span. Dr. Idzerda uses X-rays to probe the interface material and find the causes of degradation, which he hopes will ultimately lead to more reliable sources of clean energy. Dr. Idzerda can be reached at 406-994-7838 or at email@example.com.
Dr. Mark Owkes, an assistant professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, develops computational fluid dynamic (CFD) methods and applies to many gas-liquid multiphase flows including PEM fuel cells and the atomization of bio-fuels. The high fidelity CFD simulations are run on thousands of compute cores and provide a large amount of data. This data can provide insight into the phenomenological processes of the flow and lead to discoveries that improve the efficiency of engineering devices. Dr. Owkes can be reached at 406-994-6300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.montana.edu/mowkes/
Steven R. Shaw
Dr. Shaw is a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, working on modeling and control of energy systems, storage, and conversion devices. Dr. Shaw can be reached at 406-994-5982 or email@example.com. Website: http://matrix.coe.montana.edu/
Dr. Stephen Sofie is Assistant Professor in the Mechanical & Industrial Engineering Department. Metal electro-catalysts represent the standard for high performance, low cost high temperature fuel cell electrodes. Moving towards solution infiltrated catalysts to achieve nano-scale (10-80 nm), high surface area electro-catalyst coverage, yields some detriment to the use of nano-metallic catalysts. Thermodynamic degradation and hence coarsening of fine catalyst particles can lead to catalyst attrition and performance drops, ultimately limiting the long term stability of these nano-scale materials at temperatures up to 900C. Research activities are examining novel approaches to stabilizing nano-metal catalysts by the incorporation of tailored secondary phases at the catalyst/support interface to mitigate degradation by physically binding the catalyst. Mixtures of aluminum and titanium oxides have been shown to react in-situ to fuel cell electrolyte materials forming complex functional oxides that dramatically enhance fuel cell electrode longevity. Dr. Sofie can be reached at 406-599-4481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.coe.montana.edu/me/faculty/sofie/