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The Future of Fuel Cells Department of energy grant empowers UL lafayette engineer's fuel cell research

A chemical engineering professor’s research into high-performance, low-cost fuel cells has received a boost from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Dr. Xiao-Dong Zhou secured a nearly $500,000 grant from the department’s Office of Fossil Energy. The money will further his research of solid oxide fuel cell, or SOFC, technologies.

Solid oxide fuel cells are electrochemical devices. They convert chemical energy into electrical energy from coal and natural gas at an efficiency as high as 70 percent, Zhou said. By comparison, the thermal efficiency of a gasoline engine is about 30 percent.

In addition, SOFC technologies generate cost-effective electricity, emit little, if any pollutants, and can produce clean water.

The cells are tough. During preliminary research, Zhou operated them for more than 500 hours. They showed no sign of degradation at the end of the period, “even while operating at a very high power,” he said.

Zhou, director of the University’s Institute for Materials Research and Innovation, said he will use the grant to examine how the cells’ internal chemistries and structures affect “their durability to generate electricity at the highest power.”

The research aims to uncover “the thermodynamic principles that govern the longevity of a fuel cell.” That information then can be applied to the production of “a high-performance fuel cell with a superior stability for use in reliable and durable SOFC power systems,” Zhou explained.

The Energy Department announced the grant June 29. UL Lafayette and 15 other universities and companies were awarded a total of $13.5 million in federal money. Each institution also received funding from outside sources.

Other recipients include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State and West Virginia universities, and the universities of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, South Carolina and Maryland.

Private research and development firms in Ohio, Connecticut, New York and Maryland also secured grant money.

Federal funds Zhou received will be supplemented by $125,000 from UL Lafayette.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Photo by University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas

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