18 Jun '12
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
In another push for renewable energy, Siberian and Belarusian scientists have developed what experts refer to as a “brand new type of material” for fuel cells. Operating at lower-than-conventional temperatures, future energy units using the innovative cells are expected to convert chemical energy into electricity and power everything from toasters to cars and factories.
The international research team says a new substance has been found, which is derived from renewable sources and can possibly help create a next gen fuel cell. No conventional energy sources like hydrocarbons are used in their technique.
The fuel cell is a device that may be likened to an electric battery that requires no recharge and lasts long. Unlike a regular battery, the fuel cell has some chemical reactions triggered in it upon discharge, causing the cell to generate electrical current for as long as an oxidizer and a deoxidizer interact inside. Such systems can run for months and years, depending on their service life, and they never stop.
Advanced fuel cells are thought to be a new hope for the planet; pundits believe the devices will one day start powering what’s driven by fossil fuels and other non-renewables today.
The project team
A reportedly successful example of interdisciplinary approach to applied science, the three-year international effort has brought together researchers from three Novosibirsk-based think-tanks and a partner from Minsk, Belarus.
Novosibirsk State University (NSU), one of the players in the project, was set up in 1958 and now runs 13 departments, focusing on IT and telecom, nanosystems and nanomaterials, ecology and smart use of resources, energy and energy saving, as well as security and anti-terrorist techniques.
The Boreskov Institute of Catalysis, a 54-year-old research entity and part of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is a global leader in catalysis-related R&D. The Novosibirsk-based institute, with branches in St. Petersburg and Volgograd, covers a broad spectrum of fundamental research and also develops new catalysts and catalytic methods. The entity has capacity for small-scale catalyst production, too.
Another division of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a project partner, Novosibirsk’s Institute for Chemistry of Solids and Mechanochemistry, was established in 1944 and has evolved over the years into an internationally recognized scientific hub. It does extensive research in the field of mechanocomposites, a new advanced material.
The largest Belarusian partner in the joint project is the Minsk-based Institute of Powder Metallurgy, a subdivision of Belarus’ National Academy of Sciences since 1972 and a multidisciplinary research hub focusing on new powdered metal materials, composites, ultra-hard materials, protective coatings, welding methods, pulse technologies, and some other areas.
Lower temperatures, higher ductility and conductivity
According to Vladimir Sobyanin, rector of NSU, the endeavor calls for broad-based fundamental research that will enable not only the development but also prospective commercialization of medium-temperature hard-oxide fuel cells.
Seamlessly combining the properties of an electrolyte and an electrode—an imperative prerequisite for making the next gen cells—is difficult to accomplish. High-temperature fuel cells are no news to today’s science and industry; systems based on such cells can run in an operating temperature range of 900-1,400 degrees Celsius for up to five years nonstop. But to substantially broaden their applications lower operating temperatures are required.
In there pitching to meet the challenge, the Siberian scientists have reportedly developed an electrolytic membrane technology that works at 700-800 degrees Celsius. In the method, thin electrolyte films were applied to both metal and ceramic fuel cell substrates.
Adding their expertise of substrate making, the Minsk partners made a plate consisting of isocyanate foam and nickel. It was then pressed to make it lightweight and strong. At the next stage, aluminum was added to the surface layer of the plate. The resultant nickel-aluminum alloy was oxidized to form what the researchers say is a “unique composite material” that is not only durable and corrosion-resistant but also ductile, and heat- and electro-conductive.
At the final stage, the material was filled with micro- and nanoparticles to create a new solid electrolyte just five microns thick, which is chemically stable and highly conductive.