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Indian student helps solve SOFC flaw

Posted: 29 May 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fuel cells  electricity  seal glass  SOFC modules 

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) bring great potential for stationary and mobile applications. Stationary use ranges from residential applications to power plants. Mobile applications include power for ships at sea and in space, as well as for autos. In addition to electricity, when SOFCs are operated in reverse mode as solid oxide electrolyzer cells, pure hydrogen can be generated by splitting water.

But SOFCs have had a flaw – the integrity of the seals within and between power-producing units. "The seal problem is the biggest problem for commercialisation of solid oxide fuel cells," said Peizhen (Kathy) Lu, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Virginia Tech. To address this problem, Lu has invented a solution.

This drawing shows the placement of the glass seals in the solid oxide fuel cells.

This drawing shows the placement of the glass seals in the solid oxide fuel cells.

Composed of ceramic materials that can operate at temperatures as high as 1,800°F, SOFCs use high temperature to separate oxygen ions from air. The ions pass through a crystal lattice and oxidise a fuel– usually a hydrocarbon. The chemical reaction produces electrons, which flow through an external circuit, creating electricity.

To produce enough energy for a particular application, SOFC modules are stacked together. Each module has air on one side and a fuel on the other side and produces electrons. Many modules are stacked together to produce enough power for specific applications. Each module's compartments must be sealed, and there must be seals between the modules in a stack so that air and fuel do not leak or mix, resulting in a loss of efficiency or internal combustion.

Lu has invented a new glass that can be used to seal the modules and the stack. The self-healing seal glass will provide strength and long-term stability to the stack, she said.

The U.S. Department of Energy has funded Lu's SOFC and solid oxide elecrolyzer cell research to the tune of Rs.1.85 crore ($365,000) so far. "For solid oxide fuel cells to run, we need to have a fuel. Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel you can ever have since the by-product is water. However, there is no abundant source of hydrogen and it has to be made. The solid oxide elecrolyzer cell process for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen is one very desirable way of doing it," Lu said.

"Our interest is to work on the critical material problems to enable power generation and hydrogen production in large quantity and low cost," said Lu, whose expertise includes material design and material synthesis and processing.

MSE doctoral student Manoj Mahapatra, Assistant Professor Kathy Lu, and MSE doctoral student Tongan Jin are analysing the seal glass to see the resistance to devitrification (crystalline growth) of the material.

MSE doctoral student Manoj Mahapatra, Assistant Professor Kathy Lu, and MSE doctoral student Tongan Jin are analysing the seal glass to see the resistance to devitrification of the material.

"The invented glass seal materials are free of barium oxide, calcium oxide, magnesia, and alkali oxides, and in addition contain almost imperceptibly low amounts of boron oxide," said Mike Miller senior licencing manager with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties. "This is important because the seals must be both mechanically and chemically compatible with the different oxide and metallic cell components as they are repeatedly cycled between room and operating temperatures," said Miller.

An article relevant to her research titled "Network structure and thermal stability study of high temperature seal glass," by Lu and Virginia Tech materials science and engineering doctoral student M. K. Mahapatra of Egra, Purba Medinipur, India can be found here.

Get related application notes and technical articles on Power Design India.





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