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NEWS
New Insights For Powering Fuel Cells Revealed
May 2, 2019

A promising alternative to conventional power plants, solid oxide fuel cells use electrochemical methods that can generate power more efficiently than existing combustion-based generators. But fuel cells tend to degrade too quickly, eating up any efficiency gains through increased cost.

Now, according to information, in an advance that could help lead the way toward longer-lived green energy devices, engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have revealed new insights about the chemical reactions that power fuel cells.

“Fuel cells are exciting technologies with potentially disruptive capabilities,” says Dane Morgan, a professor of materials science and engineering at UW-Madison who led the research. “But degradation issues have been a major obstacle for the consumer market.”

He and his collaborators described their findings recently in the journal Nature Communications.

One reason that fuel cells degrade is that the devices must operate at extremely high temperatures – in excess of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit – to drive the chemical reactions that create electricity.

Fuel cells combine oxygen with an external fuel source, a similar process to the heat and light-yielding transformation that occurs in fire. Yet fuel cells perform those chemical reactions without burning. That’s why fuel cells can generate energy with significantly more efficiency than combustion.

Instead, fuel cells operate somewhat like batteries, consisting of two electrodes separated by an electrolyte, which is a material that transports ions. One of the electrodes splits oxygen gas from the air into individual atoms, which can then be transported and combined with fuel. Importantly, splitting oxygen frees up electrons that can move through a circuit as current to power homes or devices. This oxygen-splitting takes place at a component called the cathode.


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