OSU research analyses using direct ethanol fuel cells in auto industry

Zhenzing Feng of Oregon State College of Engineering contributed to the development of a catalyst known as direct ethanol fuel cells (DEFC).

Alternative-energy research at Oregon State University is charting a path toward the mass adoption of clean cars powered by direct-ethanol fuel cells.

Zhenzing Feng and team have had to tackle the three problems that have long been associated with DEFC in the past, these issues include, low efficiency, cost of catalytic materials, and the toxicity of chemical reactions inside the cells.

In order to combat these usual problems, Feng and team found that putting fluorine atoms into palladium nitrogen carbon catalysts had several positive effects, such as keeping dense cells stable for nearly six thousand hours.

“Our team showed that introducing fluorine atoms into palladium-nitrogen-carbon catalysts modifies the environment around the palladium, and that improves both activity and durability for two important reactions in the cell: the ethanol oxidation reaction and the oxygen reduction reaction,” Feng said. “Advanced synchrotron X-ray spectroscopy characterisations made at Argonne suggest that fluorine atom introduction creates a more nitrogen-rich palladium surface, which is favourable for catalysis. Durability is enhanced by inhibiting palladium migration and decreasing carbon corrosion.”

What does this mean for the environment?

Vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel engines rely on the combustion of fossil fuels, which inevitably leads to emissions of carbon dioxide. Thus, motor vehicles are one of the main sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a primary factor in climate change.

Feng explained that “To achieve carbon neutral and zero carbon emissions goals, alternative energy conversion devices using the fuel from renewable and sustainable sources are urgently needed. Direct ethanol fuel cells can potentially replace gasoline, and diesel-based energy conversion systems as power sources.”

Therefore, the work done by Feng and team can potentially lead to vehicles that are powered by DEFC, thus limiting the carbon dioxide emitted by motor vehicles exponentially.

Feng and team are currently in the process of developing the prototypes of the DEFC units for portable devices and vehicles, and if successful, the hope is that they can be introduced in ten years.

How direct ethanol fuel cells work

A fuel cell relies on the chemical energy of hydrogen or other fuels to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity. DEFC technology relies on ethanol, which can deliver more energy per kilogram than other fuels such as hydrogen.

“In DEFC technology, ethanol can be generated from a number of sources, particularly biomass like sugar cane, wheat and corn,” Feng said. “The benefit of using biological sources to produce ethanol is that plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Which means that the introduction of this technology will lead to an exponential improvement in the environment, due to the decrease of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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