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ENERGY TECH
Organic molecules could store energy in flow batteries
by Staff Writers
Boston MA (SPX) Jul 19, 2016


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WSU researchers determine key improvement for fuel cells
Pullman WA (SPX) Jul 19, 2016 - Washington State University researchers have determined a key step in improving solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), a promising clean energy technology that has struggled to gain wide acceptance in the marketplace.

The researchers determined a way to improve one of the primary failure points for the fuel cell, overcoming key issues that have hindered its acceptance. Their work is featured on the cover of the latest issue of Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

Fuel cells offer a clean and highly efficient way to convert the chemical energy in fuels directly into electrical energy. They are similar to batteries in that they have an anode, cathode and electrolyte and create electricity, but they use fuel to create a continuous flow of electricity.

Fuel cells can be about four times more efficient than a combustion engine because they are based on electrochemical reactions, but researchers continue to struggle with making them cheaply and efficiently enough to compete with traditional power generation sources.

An SOFC is made of solid materials, and the electricity is created by oxygen ions traveling through the fuel cell. Unlike other types of fuel cells, SOFCs don't require the use of expensive metals, like platinum, and can work with a large variety of fuels, such as gasoline or diesel fuel.

When gasoline is used for fuel, however, a carbon-based material tends to build up in the fuel cell and stop the conversion reaction. Other chemicals, in particular sulfur, can also poison and stop the reactions.

In their study, the WSU researchers improved understanding of the process that stops the reactions. Problems most often occur at a place on the anode's surface, called the triple-phase boundary, where the anode connects with the electrolyte and fuel.

The researchers determined that the presence of an electric field at this boundary can prevent failures and improve the system's performance. To properly capture the complexity of this interface, they used the Center for Nanoscale Materials supercomputer at the Argonne National Laboratory to perform computations.

The researchers studied similar issues in solid oxide electrolysis cells (SOECs), which are like fuel cells that run in reverse to convert carbon dioxide and water to transportation fuel precursors.

The work provides guidance that industry can eventually use to reduce material buildup and poisoning and improve performance of SOFCs and SOECs, said Jean-Sabin McEwen, assistant professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, who led the project.

The research is in keeping with WSU's Grand Challenges, a suite of research initiatives aimed at large societal issues. It is particularly relevant to the challenge of sustainable resources and its theme of energy.

Harvard researchers have identified a whole new class of high-performing organic molecules, inspired by vitamin B2, that can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power in large batteries.

The development builds on previous work in which the team developed a high-capacity flow battery that stored energy in organic molecules called quinones and a food additive called ferrocyanide. That advance was a game-changer, delivering the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and low-cost chemicals that could enable large-scale, inexpensive electricity storage.

While the versatile quinones show great promise for flow batteries, Harvard researchers continued to explore other organic molecules in pursuit of even better performance. But finding that same versatility in other organic systems has been challenging.

"Now, after considering about a million different quinones, we have developed a new class of battery electrolyte material that expands the possibilities of what we can do," said Kaixiang Lin, a Ph.D. student at Harvard and first author of the paper. "Its simple synthesis means it should be manufacturable on a large scale at a very low cost, which is an important goal of this project."

Flow batteries store energy in solutions in external tanks - the bigger the tanks, the more energy they store. In 2014, Michael J. Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Professor of Chemistry and their team at Harvard replaced metal ions used as conventional battery electrolyte materials in acidic electrolytes with quinones, molecules that store energy in plants and animals. In 2015, they developed a quinone that could work in alkaline solutions alongside a common food additive.

In this most recent research, the team found inspiration in vitamin B2, which helps to store energy from food in the body. The key difference between B2 and quinones is that nitrogen atoms, instead of oxygen atoms, are involved in picking up and giving off electrons.

"With only a couple of tweaks to the original B2 molecule, this new group of molecules becomes a good candidate for alkaline flow batteries," said Aziz.

"They have high stability and solubility and provide high battery voltage and storage capacity. Because vitamins are remarkably easy to make, this molecule could be manufactured on a large scale at a very low cost."

"We designed these molecules to suit the needs of our battery, but really it was nature that hinted at this way to store energy," said Gordon, co-senior author of the paper. "Nature came up with similar molecules that are very important in storing energy in our bodies."

The team will continue to explore quinones, as well as this new universe of molecules, in pursuit of a high-performing, long-lasting and inexpensive flow battery.

The new research is published in Nature Energy. The paper was authored by Lin, Aziz, Gordon, Aspuru-Guzik, Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, Eugene S. Beh, Liuchuan Tong, Qing Chen, and Alvaro Valle.


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