Paul Gannon, an assistant professor at MSU, checks one of high-temperature kilns he uses to test the longevity of fuel cell components.

Paul Gannon, an assistant professor at MSU, checks one of high-temperature kilns he uses to test the longevity of fuel cell components.

Fuel cells, devices that change chemical energy 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.

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.

One factor that keeps the costs of fuel cells high is materials, which is why researchers at MSU are studying the components of SOFCs and developing protective coatings that can help parts survive the 1,500-degree Fahrenheit temperatures inside an operating fuel cell.

Much of this work is done at the university's High Temperature Corrosion and Corrosion Protection Laboratory, part of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Lab researchers use a number of technologies to test protective coatings, including large-area filtered-arc deposition and magnetron sputtering. The lab is also home to furnaces used to test coatings at fuel cell-like temperatures.

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.

Scientists in MSU's physics department are working on proton-conducting, electrolyte-based fuel cells, which, along with other benefits, could operate at lower temperatures — and therefore lower costs. Right now, physicists are busy developing dense and stable proton-conducting ceramics for fuel cells and other applications.

Finally, MSU is home to a satellite office of the High Temperature Electrochemistry Center, where researchers study the metal oxide thin films and electrochemical reactions at buried interfaces — the areas where different fuel cell materials come together.

MSU Websites

  • Electro-active Materials Laboratory — In addition to their work in proton-conducting ceramics for fuel cells, researchers in MSU's Electro-active Materials Laboratory study piezoelectric polymers, high-strain crystals, photostriction and hydrogen separation for a variety of applications.
  • Dynamic Models for PEMFCs and Tubular SOFCs — Electrical engineers at MSU have developed these computer models of proton exchange membrane and solid oxide fuel cells that other researchers can download and use in their own studies
  • Structural Geology and Tectonics Lab — The structural geology and tectonics lab provides high-end computing capabilities that support surface and sub-surface structural analysis.
  • High Temperature Corrosion and Corrosion Protection Laboratory The chemical engineering department's corrosion lab investigates fuel cell materials and coatings and their behaviors at high temperatures. The lab's current work includes developing coatings for SOFC metallic interconnects.
  • High Temperature Electrochemistry Center — HiTEC is a federally funded program at MSU researching SOFCs and other high-temperature electrochemical systems. Potential applications for HiTEC's work include fossil energy conversion, reversible fuel cells, gas separation and purification, electrolysis, emissions reduction and low-cost materials manufacturing technologies.

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