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Montana native Paul Gannon found leading-edge research opportunities at home.
(photo Erin Raley)

Fuel cells electrify researchers and students

by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Paul Gannon is a Montana kid. He went to high school in Billings and has family connections to a former ranch, now golf course, in Great Falls. He hunts, fishes and backpacks. Kayaks, climbs and skis too. He can hum a few songs of the pioneers and knows a Charlie Russell story or two.

But Gannon, 24, is doing something that until recently was decidedly un-Montanan: researching hightech energy sources called fuel cells. "It's fantastic that I'm able to pursue such a high-tech field in Bozeman," said Gannon, a graduate student in chemical engineering who has a strong environmental interest. "I'd like to feel like what I'm doing here may make some longterm contribution to sustainable energy technologies."

Fuel Cell
Interconnects are sandwiched between fuel cell layers to provide support and to help conduct electricity through the fuel cell stack. The interconnects corrode easily, leading to failures. Paul Gannon and others are investigating protective metal coatings as a way of extending interconnect lifetimes.

Gannon says he's taken a little ribbing from relatives who wonder why he hasn't gone somewhere else to get his Ph.D. He answers that he doesn't need to.

"There's a nice breadth of research here," he said, "that spans the spectrum from fundamental to applied. It's unique to have this much breadth."

Fuel cells, despite their Spaceman Spiff image of always being in the future, really do work. But not for cheap. NASA puts them on the space shuttle. Without a big budget, however, the cost of energy produced by fuel cells is prohibitively high.

But so is the potential for cleaner, more efficient energy production, and industry and the federal government want to expand the technology beyond high-cost niche marketplaces.

They want greater production of those metal boxes whose chemistry produces electricity. They envision a clean, distributed, reliable energy source operable in a variety of settings.

"He's creating a new path for science and technology himself."

Gannon checks one of seven kilns he uses to test the longevity of fuel cell interconnects. (photo Erin Raley)

People like Gannon are working toward those goals, and until lately none of that research was happening in Montana. Opportunity has knocked for Gannon, but he's also shown a lot of initiative, said Lee Spangler, who coordinates MSU's fuel cell program as director of special projects in the Vice President for Research Office.

As an undergraduate, Gannon completed several internships at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. ("It was like a chemist's candy store with all the equipment they had," Gannon remembered.) His work with PNNL on fuel cells continues.

C. Nelson The market for fuel cells is expanding. Zoot Enterprises of Bozeman operates two molten carbonate fuel cells to meet the company's power needs and sells the excess, said CEO Chris Nelson. (photo Jean Arthur)

Gannon also works at Arcomac Surface Engineering, a small high-tech company in Bozeman that specializes in fine metal coatings. The company owns a piece of equipment found nowhere else in the world.

What's more, he's doing his own path-breaking research on fuel cell materials that keeps seven kiln-like furnaces cooking at nearly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit around the clock in a lab on campus.

"Paul is unusually capable and has an unusual combination of experiences," Spangler said. "This is what the [MSU] fuel cell program has to offer students—at least two of these three types of experiences" with industry, national labs and university scientists. Larry Pedersen at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory agreed that Gannon's breadth is atypical.

"He's doing a very impressive piece of work as a grad student," said Pedersen, a lab fellow in PNNL's energy science and technology directorate.

Pedersen said unlike a typical graduate student who focuses on a reasonably narrow area, Gannon has had to branch out. "He's creating a new path for science and technology himself," Pedersen said.

Fuel cells:
big challenges, great potential

Fuel cells have been around about 150 years. They're efficient and clean energy sources but haven't been widely adopted because they're expensive and not very durable.

A kilowatt of electricity from today's fuel cells costs about $3,000 to produce, according to Gary McVay at the Pacific Northwest National Lab. At about $1,000 per kilowatt, certain niche markets open up. But to be competitive with other methods of power generation, the price tag must be about $400 per kilowatt.

"There are fuel cell development companies out there, but most are not mass producing yet," said MSU graduate student Paul Gannon. "So we need new technology aimed at mass producing to make the price lower."

The materials are what keeps the cost high, which is why Gannon is on the job. He's investigating pieces of stainless steel called interconnects that help conduct electricity through solid oxide fuel cell stacks. To keep the interconnects from corroding in the harsh, 1500 degree Fahrenheit fuel cell environment, Gannon and other are investigating protective coatings. "Everyone doing stack development is finding corrosion problems," said PNNL lab fellow Larry Pedersen.

Interconnects of coated stainless steel components will be much cheaper to produce than ones made from expensive alloys or ceramics, Pedersen said.

The chromium/aluminum coatings are applied on 4"x 4" pieces of stainless steel in the thinnest layers imaginable ( a few micrometers) at Arcomac Surface Engineering, a high-tech company in Bozeman that has a deposition machine like none other in the world.

Then Gannon stacks the squares like sandwiches and loads them into kilns. He heats them to 1500 degrees for 1200 hours (50 days) to see how well the coatings perform. That information informs the development and testing of new coatings. Gannon's tested about 20 coatings so far.

An acceptable interconnect would have to last 40,000 hours with just a two percent failure rate in the first 1,000 hours, said Pedersen.

Gannon, immersed in this research direction new to Montana, has a couple more years of graduate school ahead of him. By then, his research on the best metal coatings may have ushered in a longer lasting, less expensive solid-oxide fuel cell for a broader market.

What might be next is unclear for this young man lucky enough to combine his love of the Montana outdoors with his educational interests.

"I'd love to stay here forever and do it all."

Cost, flexibility, expertise spur MSU's fuel cell research

Fuel cells come in five types: solid oxide; molten carbonate; alkaline; phosphoric acid; and proton exchange membrane.

MSU began its solid oxide fuel cell program about two years ago for several reasons, said Lee Spangler, who coordinates the program. For one, solid oxide fuel cells operate at high temperatures (1500 degrees Fahrenheit), meaning nonprecious metals can be used as catalysts to drive the production costs down.

For another, solid oxide fuel cells are more fuel-flexible. They can tolerate chemical byproducts that would poison other fuel cell types. Finally, MSU faculty have the right expertise in solid oxide fuel cell materials and chemistry as well as power engineering.

Funded at about $1-million a year, the fuel cell program at MSU involves seven faculty and 13 graduate students. Up to 18 MSU undergraduates as well as a few high school teachers and students have worked on the program, too.

The funds come from the U.S. Department of Interior and were appropriated to Montana with the help of Sen. Conrad Burns.

MSU offered its first class on fuel cells last year and is one of just a few universities in the country putting together a curriculum on the topic, said Robert Marley, dean of the College of Engineering. An entire workforce needs to be trained to design, implement and maintain fuel cells as the country moves toward this more efficient means of energy production, he said.

MSU also is the first satellite research center for the Department of Energy's High-Temperature Electrochemistry Center, which is working toward creating highly efficient, pollution- free power plants by 2015.

The MSU faculty involved in the research are:

• Electrical engineering assistant professor Steve Shaw is working on getting fuel cells to respond appropriately to rapidly changing power needs.

Hashem Nehrir's work is aimed at getting fuel cells and other power sources such as wind and solar to work together in a sensible fashion. Nehrir is an electrical engineering professor.

Hongwei Gao, assistant electrical engineering professor, is developing high-efficiency DC-to-DC converters to get fuel cell voltage to where it's needed.

Max Deibert, chemical engineering associate professor, works with Gannon on the conductive performance of interconnects in the presence of heat and oxygen.

Dick Smith, a professor of physics, is looking at detailed changes in interconnect coating in the early stages of testing, called the burn-in phase. He uses highly sensitive ion beams as well as high-end analytical equipment in MSU's Image and Chemical Analysis Lab (ICAL).

• Associate physics professor Yves Idzerda uses x-rays to analyze buried interfaces on the coated interconnect surfaces. The x-rays look where eyes, and a lot of other methods, can't see.

• Physics professor Hugo Schmidt is looking at how well ions, which carry charge inside the fuel cell, flow through solid oxide fuel cell materials.

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