Mechanical engineering professor studies promising fuel cell technology
Joshua Hertz


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10:37 a.m., Nov. 17, 2010----Joshua Hertz, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware, is investigating new methods to improve solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), a promising fuel cell technology.

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His research is funded through a four-year, $548,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy through the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, which supports fundamental energy research “at the electronic, atomic and molecular levels in order to provide the foundations for new energy technologies.”

New technologies that can convert chemical bonds into electrical energy with increased efficiency are in high demand to address society's growing economic and environmental concerns, explains Hertz.

Solid oxide fuel cells work by electrochemically oxidizing a fuel, transforming chemical energy directly into electricity.

Since they can efficiently operate from complex fuels, including biofuels, they are anticipated to become a highly important sustainable energy technology.

Currently, the solid electrolyte component provides poor low temperature oxygen ion conductivity, requiring operation at temperatures in excess of 800 degrees C. Such high temperatures necessitate slow startup and shutdown procedures, exotic gas-sealing techniques, expensive components to house the cell itself and a limited lifespan, making SOFCs cost prohibitive to commercial production.

To address the problem, Hertz and his research team are creating electrolytes from multilayers of materials -- with layer thicknesses of just a few nanometers (about one-hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair) -- in order to strain the atomic lattices.

“We expect that strain can improve oxygen ion conductivity, a critical parameter in improving the energy output of solid oxide fuel cells and other devices based on solid electrolytes at lower temperatures,” he says. “A few groups have shown that strain can affect the ease with which ions move in solids, but here we will perform a very systematic study to fundamentally understand how we can use these effects to improve the mobility of oxygen ions.”

Hertz serves as sole principal investigator for the grant. Jun Jiang, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, and Weida Shen, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, also serve on the research team.

“It's great to see this groundbreaking energy related research coming to the University of Delaware,” says Michael J. Chajes, dean of the College of Engineering.

Article by Karen B. Roberts