Making Fuel Cells for a Fraction of the Cost

It is the third announcement in less than one week for a major improvment in the making of fuel cells.

In the competition between Lithium-Ion batteries (e.g. Tesla cars), and hydrogen fuel cells (see picture of Nexo from Hyundai) that power electric cars, it is difficult to predict which one will be the winner at the end.

Fuel cells have the potential to be a clean and efficient way to run cars, computers, and power stations, but the cost of producing them is limiting their use. That’s because a key component of the most common fuel cells is a catalyst made from the precious metal platinum.

In a paper published in Small, researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), describe the development of an inexpensive, efficient catalyst material for a type of fuel cell called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), which turns the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity and is among the most promising fuel cell types to power cars and electronics.

The catalyst developed at UCR is made of porous carbon nanofibers embedded with a compound made from a relatively abundant metal such as cobalt, which is more than 100 times less expensive than platinum. The research was led by David Kisailus, the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering.

Fuel cells, which are already being used by some carmakers, offer advantages over conventional combustion technologies, including higher efficiency, quieter operation and lower emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water.

Like batteries, fuel cells are electrochemical devices that comprise a positive and negative electrode sandwiching an electrolyte. When a hydrogen fuel is injected onto the anode, a catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into positively charged particles called protons and negatively charged particles called electrons. The electrons are directed through an external circuit, where they do useful work, such as powering an electric motor, before rejoining the positively charged hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

A critical barrier to fuel cell adoption is the cost of platinum, making the development of alternative catalyst materials a key driver for their mass implementation.

Using a technique called electrospinning, the UCR researchers made paper-thin sheets of carbon nanofibers that contained metal ions — either cobalt, iron or nickel. Kisailus and his team, collaborating with scientists at Stanford University, determined that the new materials performed as good as the industry standard platinum-carbon systems, but at a fraction of the cost. “The key to the high performance of the materials we created is the combination of the chemistry and fiber processing conditions,” Kisailus said


Glass Blocks Generate Electricity Using Solar Energy

Buildings consume more than forty percent of global electricity and reportedly cause at least a third of carbon emissions. Scientists want to cut this drastically – and create a net-zero energy future for new buildings. Build Solar want to help. The firm has created a glass brick containing small solar cells.


On top of this we have placed in some intelligent optics which are able to focus the incoming sunlight onto these solar cells almost throughout the day. When we do that we are able to generate a higher amount of electrical output from each solar cell that we are using,” says Dr Hasan Baig, founder of Build Solar.
As well as converting the sun’s power to electricity, the bricks have other abilities.
The product is aligned to provide three different things, including electricity, daylighting, and thermal insulation which is generally required by any kind of construction product. More importantly it is aesthetic in its look, so it fits in very well within the building architecture,” adds Dr Baig.
Using Building Integrated Photovoltaics, the technology would be used in addition to existing solar roof panels. The University of Exeter spin-off is fine-tuning the design, which works in many colours. The company says the product could be market ready by the end of next year.


How To Use Computers Heat To Generate Electricity

Electronic devices such as computers generate heat that mostly goes to waste. Physicists at Bielefeld University (Germany) have found a way to use this energy: They apply the heat to generate magnetic signals known as ‘spin currents’. In future, these signals could replace some of the electrical current in electronic components. In a new study, the physicists tested which materials can generate this spin current most effectively from heat. The research was carried out in cooperation with colleagues from the University of Greifswald, Gießen University, and the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden.

The Bielefeld physicists are working on the basic principles for making data processing more effective and energy-efficient in the young field of ‘spin caloritronics’. They are members of the ‘Thin Films & Physics of Nanostructures’ research group headed by Professor Dr. Günter Reiss. Their new study determines the strength of the spin current for various combinations of thin films.

A spin current is produced by differences in temperature between two ends of an electronic component. These components are extremely small and only one millionth of a millimetre thick. Because they are composed of magnetic materials such as iron, cobalt, or nickel, they are called magnetic nanostructures.

The physicists take two such nanofilms and place a layer of metal oxide between them that is only a few atoms thick. They heat up one of the external films – for example, with a hot nanowire or a focused laser. Electrons with a specific spin orientation then pass through the metal oxide. This produces the spin current. A spin can be conceived as electrons spinning on their own axes – either clockwise or anti-clockwise.

Their findings have been  published  in the research journal ‘Nature Communications’.


How To Draw Electricity from the Bloodstream

Men build dams and huge turbines to turn the energy of waterfalls and tides into electricity. To produce hydropower on a much smaller scale, Chinese scientists have now developed a lightweight power generator based on carbon nanotube fibers suitable to convert even the energy of flowing blood in blood vessels into electricity.

For thousands of years, people have used the energy of flowing or falling water for their purposes, first to power mechanical engines such as watermills, then to generate electricity by exploiting height differences in the landscape or sea tides. Using naturally flowing water as a sustainable power source has the advantage that there are (almost) no dependencies on weather or daylight. Even flexible, minute power generators that make use of the flow of biological fluids are conceivable. How such a system could work is explained by a research team from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Huisheng Peng and his co-workers have developed a fiber with a thickness of less than a millimeter that generates electrical power when surrounded by flowing saline solution—in a thin tube or even in a blood vessel.

The construction principle of the fiber is quite simple. An ordered array of carbon nanotubes was continuously wrapped around a polymeric core. Carbon nanotubes are well known to be electroactive and mechanically stable; they can be spun and aligned in sheets. In the as-prepared electroactive threads, the carbon nanotube sheets coated the fiber core with a thickness of less than half a micron. For power generation, the thread or “fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator” (FFNG), as the authors call it, was connected to electrodes and immersed into flowing water or simply repeatedly dipped into a saline solution. “The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution,” the scientists explained. According to the theory, an electrical double layer is created around the fiber, and then the flowing solution distorts the symmetrical charge distribution, generating an electricity gradient along the long axis.

The power output efficiency of this system was high. Compared with other types of miniature energy-harvesting devices, the FFNG was reported to show a superior power conversion efficiency of more than 20%. Other advantages are elasticity, tunability, lightweight, and one-dimensionality, thus offering prospects of exciting technological applications. The FFNG can be made stretchable just by spinning the sheets around an elastic fiber substrate. If woven into fabrics, wearable electronics become thus a very interesting option for FFNG application. Another exciting application is the harvesting of electrical energy from the bloodstream for medical applications. First tests with frog nerves proved to be successful.

The findings are published in  the journal Angewandte Chemie.


Move And Produce Electricity To Power Your Phone

Imagine slipping into a jacket, shirt or skirt that powers your cell phone, fitness tracker and other personal electronic devices as you walk, wave and even when you are sitting down. A new, ultrathin energy harvesting system developed at Vanderbilt University’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory has the potential to do just that. Based on battery technology and made from layers of black phosphorus that are only a few atoms thick, the new device generates small amounts of electricity when it is bent or pressed even at the extremely low frequencies characteristic of human motion.


In the future, I expect that we will all become charging depots for our personal devices by pulling energy directly from our motions and the environment,” said Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint, who directed the research.
This is timely and exciting research given the growth of wearable devices such as exoskeletons and smart clothing, which could potentially benefit from Dr. Pint’s advances in materials and energy harvesting,” observed Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, an expert on the biomechanics of locomotion who did not participate in the device’s development.

Doctoral students Nitin Muralidharan and Mengya Lic o-led the effort to make and test the devices. When you look at Usain Bolt, you see the fastest man on Earth. When I look at him, I see a machine working at 5 Hertz, said Muralidharan.

The new energy harvesting system is described in a paper titled “Ultralow Frequency Electrochemical Mechanical Strain Energy Harvester using 2D Black Phosphorus Nanosheets” published  by the journal ACS Energy Letters.


Artificial Blowhole Generates Electricity From Ocean Waves

Renewable energy companies want to tap the potential of waves. It’s proved tough to commercialise. But Australian firm Wave Swell Energy thinks it’s turned the tide on wave energy. Its device harnesses wave power like an artificial blowhole.


The waves pass by and it causes the water level inside this artificial chamber, which is open underneath the water, to rise and fall and as it does so it compresses air, and then creates a partial vacuum as it’s falling and we use that motion to drive an air turbine,” says Tom Deniss, CEO of the company Wave Swell Energy.

The oscillating water column concept has been used before, but the Wave Swell model comes with a difference.  “We use uni-directional flow, in other hands, air-flow simply coming in one direction past the turbine, whereas all other attempts have used bidirectional flow. Independent tests found the model was at least twice as efficient as a conventional device. When fully constructed, the device will measure 20 metres by 20 metres, with the air turbine sitting above the water. It will operate off the coast of King Island – in Bass Strait – in May next year, adds Tom Deniss.  “The excellent wave climate there and the support of the local community meant that it was just an ideal location for us to use as a demonstration of the commercial viability of our technology.”
The company hopes to rival the cost of the cheapest global energy sources in five years….finally untapping the power of the ocean.


How To Convert Heat Into Electricity

The same researchers who pioneered the use of a quantum mechanical effect to convert heat into electricity have figured out how to make their technique work in a form more suitable to industry. In Nature Communications, engineers from The Ohio State University (OSU) describe how they used magnetism on a composite of nickel and platinum to amplify the voltage output 10 times or more—not in a thin film, as they had done previously, but in a thicker piece of material that more closely resembles components for future electronic devices.

Many electrical and mechanical devices, such as car engines, produce heat as a byproduct of their normal operation. It’s called “waste heat,” and its existence is required by the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, explained study co-author Stephen Boona.

devices-that-convert-heat-into-electricityOver half of the energy we use is wasted and enters the atmosphere as heat,” said Boona, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State. “Solid-state thermoelectrics can help us recover some of that energy. These devices have no moving parts, don’t wear out, are robust and require no maintenance. Unfortunately, to date, they are also too expensive and not quite efficient enough to warrant widespread use. We’re working to change that.”But a growing area of research called solid-state thermoelectrics aims to capture that waste heat inside specially designed materials to generate power and increase overall energy efficiency.


Solar Cells: How To Transform More Solar Energy Into Electricity

Sagrario Domínguez-Fernández, a Spanish telecommunications engineer at CEMITEC, has managed to increase light absorption in silicon by means of nanostructures etched onto photovoltaic cells. This increases the efficiency obtained in these electronic devices which are made of this element and which transform solar energy into electricity.
solar cells

Over 30 percent of the sunlight that strikes a silicon is reflected, which means it cannot be used in the photoelectric conversion,” explained Sagrario Domínguez. “Because the nanostructures on the surface of a material have dimensions in the light wavelength range, they interfere with the surface in a particular way and allow the amount of reflected light to be modified.”

Sagrario Domínguez designed and optimised structures on a nanometric scaleto try and find one that would minimise the reflectance [ability of a surface to reflect light] of the silicon in the wavelength range in which solar cells function.” In their manufacturing process, she resorted to what is known as laser interference lithography which consists of applying laser radiation to a photo-sensitive material to create structures on a nanometric scale. Specifically, she used polished silicon wafers to which she gave the shape of cylindrical pillar and obtained a 77 percent reduction in the reflectance of this element.

Sagrario Domínguez then went on to modify the manufacturing processes to produce the nanostructures on the silicon substrates used in commercial solar cells. “These substrates have dimensions and a surface roughness that makes them, ‘a priori’, unsuitable for processes,” pointed out the researcher. Having overcome the difficulties, she incorporated nanostructures onto following the standard processes of the photovoltaics industry. “According to the literature, this is the first time that it has been possible to manufacture periodic nanostructures; they are the ones that on the surface of a material are continuously repeated on substrates of this type, and therefore, the first standard solar cell with periodic nanostructures,” pointed out the new MIT PhD holder. The efficiency obtained is 15.56 percent, which is a very promising value when compared with others included in the literature.


How To Harvest Heat In The Dark To Produce Electricity

Physicists have discovered radical new properties in a nanomaterial, opening new possibilities for highly efficient thermophotovoltaic cells that could one day harvest heat in the dark and turn it into electricity. The research team from the Australian National University (ANU/ARC Centre of Excellence CUDOS) and the University of California Berkeley demonstrated a new artificial material, or metamaterial, that glows in an unusual way when heated.

The findings could drive a revolution in the development of cells which convert radiated heat into electricity, known as thermophotovoltaic cells. “Thermophotovoltaic cells have the potential to be much more efficient than solar cells,” said Dr Sergey Kruk from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.


Our metamaterial overcomes several obstacles and could help to unlock the potential of thermophotovoltaic cells.”

Thermophotovoltaic cells have been predicted to be more than twice as efficient as conventional solar cells. They do not need direct sunlight to generate electricity, and instead can harvest heat from their surroundings in the form of infrared radiation. They can also be combined with a burner to produce on-demand power or can recycle heat radiated by hot engines. The team’s metamaterial, made of tiny nanoscopic structures of gold and magnesium fluoride, radiates heat in specific directions. The geometry of the metamaterial can also be tweaked to give off radiation in specific spectral range, in contrast to standard materials that emit their heat in all directions as a broad range of infrared wavelengths. This makes the new material ideal for use as an emitter paired with a thermophotovoltaic cell.

The project started when Dr Kruk predicted the new metamaterial would have these surprising properties. The ANU team then worked with scientists at the University of California Berkeley, who have unique expertise in manufacturing such materials.

To fabricate this material the Berkeley team were operating at the cutting edge of technological possibilities,” Dr Kruk said. “The size of an individual building block of the metamaterial is so small that we could fit more than 12,000 of them on the cross-section of a human hair.

The research is published in Nature Communications.


Efficient Triboelectric Generator Embedded In A Shoe

A two-stage power management and storage system could dramatically improve the efficiency of triboelectric generators that harvest energy from irregular human motion such as walking, running or finger tapping. The system uses a small capacitor to capture alternating current generated by the biomechanical activity. When the first capacitor fills, a power management circuit then feeds the electricity into a battery or larger capacitor. This second storage device supplies DC current at voltages appropriate for powering wearable and mobile devices such as watches, heart monitors, calculators, thermometers – and even wireless remote entry devices for vehicles. By matching the impedance of the storage device to that of the triboelectric generators, the new system can boost energy efficiency from just one percent to as much as 60 percent.

Triboelectric shoes

llustration shows how a triboelectric generator embedded in a shoe would produce electricity as a person walked

With a high-output triboelectric generator and this power management circuit, we can power a range of applications from human motion,” said Simiao Niu, a graduate research assistant in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The first stage of our system is matched to the triboelectric nanogenerator, and the second stage is matched to the application that it will be powering.

The research has been reported in the journal Nature Communications.


How To Store Electricity In Paper

Researchers at Linköping University’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Sweden, have developed power paper – a new material with an outstanding ability to store energy. The material consists of nanocellulose and a conductive polymer.

One sheet, 15 centimetres in diameter and a few tenths of a millimetre thick can store as much as 1 F, which is similar to the supercapacitors currently on the market. The material can be recharged hundreds of times and each charge only takes a few seconds.

It’s a dream product in a world where the increased use of renewable energy requires new methods for energy storage – from summer to winter, from a windy day to a calm one, from a sunny day to one with heavy cloud cover.


Thin films that function as capacitors have existed for some time. What we have done is to produce the material in three dimensions. We can produce thick sheets,” says Xavier Crispin, professor of organic electronics and co-author to the article just published in Advanced Science.

The material, power paper, looks and feels like a slightly plasticky paper and the researchers have amused themselves by using one piece to make an origami swan – which gives an indication of its strength.

The structural foundation of the material is nanocellulose, which is cellulose fibres which, using high-pressure water, are broken down into fibres as thin as 20 nm in diameter. With the cellulose fibres in a solution of water, an electrically charged polymer (PEDOT:PSS), also in a water solution, is added. The polymer then forms a thin coating around the fibres.

The covered fibres are in tangles, where the liquid in the spaces between them functions as an electrolyte,” explains Jesper Edberg, doctoral student, who conducted the experiments together with Abdellah Malti, who recently completed his doctorate. Other co-authors are researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Innventia, Technical University of Denmark and the University of Kentucky.

The results have been published in Advanced Science.


Huge Solar Farm Opens In South France

France has opened the largest solar farm in Europe, producing enough electricity to power a city the size of Bordeaux. The 260 hectare park, situated at Cestas in the Gironde, is slightly larger than the principality of Monaco, and has the same power as an old coal power station. It cost €360million and has been built by the independent renewable electricity producer Neoen. The company’s director general said that the work had been completed on time and in budget.

solar farmLe Figaro compared the project to France’s latest nuclear reactor EPR nuclear reactor under construction in Flamanville whose budget has risen from €3.3billion to €10.5bn and is currently due to start production six years late, in 2018.

Also by comparison, the price of electricity from the solar park is set at €105 per megawatt hour (MWh) for the first 20 years, compared to €114 MWh for the EPR reactor. Wind power is typically around €80 MWh.

The panels were manufactured by three different factories in China and installed by Schneider Electric, a subsidiary of the construction group Eiffage who fitted 15,000 panels a day to complete the project.
The site has 680km of underground cable, 3,700km of solar cable and 116km of high tension cable.
More than 16,500 metal support tables and 3,826 fuse boxes were fitted.