With commitments from leading car and stationary-power manufacturers to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and the first ever fuel cell electric vehicle to go on sale later this year, interest is once again swelling in this carbon-free technology. Now, thanks to several new projects from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fuel Cell Technologies Office, scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will have an important role in accelerating innovation and commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.
Berkeley Lab has been awarded $8 million for two new DOE research efforts, one to find new materials for hydrogen storage and another for optimizing fuel-cell performance and durability. In addition, Berkeley Lab is leading a range of other hydrogen and fuel cell research projects aimed at developing next-generation fuel cell and related energy-conversion technologies.
“Berkeley Lab has had a strong fuel cell research program going back decades,” said scientist Adam Weber, who leads fuel cell research at Berkeley Lab. “With these new DOE consortiums, each national lab brings its core competences while synergistically leveraging each other. This way we’ll be able to push the state-of-the-art much faster and further than we could individually.”
Fuel cells are considered one of the most promising and fast-growing clean energy technologies. In 2014, about 50,000 fuel cell units were shipped worldwide, with a nearly 30 percent market growth every year since 2010. This year, Toyota’s Mirai will be the first fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) to be commercially available for sale in the U.S. Still, cost remains one of the biggest challenges to wider adoption.
The Fuel Cell—Consortium for Performance and Durability (FC-PAD) is led by Los Alamos National Laboratory and includes Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with Weber serving as the consortium’s deputy director. Its goal is to improve and optimize polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which are used primarily for transportation, while reducing their cost. “If we can make individual cells more durable and perform better with less costly components or fewer of them, than you would drive down the cost of the vehicle,” Weber said.
Specifically one research focus of Weber’s work for FC-PAD will be trying to understand and optimize mass transport in the fuel cell, or the transport of reactants and products, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water. Mass-transport issues can limit fuel-cell performance. “One of our core competences at Berkeley Lab is in mathematical modeling and advanced diagnostics, which we can use to study, explore, and describe the transport phenomena across length scales from the microstructural to macroscopic levels,” he said.
Like batteries, fuel cells use a chemical reaction to produce electricity. However fuel cells don’t need to be recharged; rather, they will produce electricity as long as fuel is supplied. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen is the fuel, and it’s stored in a tank connected to the fuel cell.
Safe and cost-effective hydrogen storage is another challenge for FCEVs, one that the other DOE consortium, Hydrogen Materials—Advanced Research Consortium (HyMARC), seeks to address. HyMARC is led by Sandia National Laboratories and also includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Jeff Urban, the HyMARC lead scientist for Berkeley Lab, noted the Lab’s strengths: “Berkeley Lab brings to the consortium a combination of innovation in H2 storage materials, surface and interface science, controlled nanoscale synthesis, world-class user facilities for characterizing nanoscale materials, and predictive materials genome capabilities.”
Researchers have two goals for hydrogen storage—greater storage density at lower pressure. Greater density will allow for greater vehicle driving range while lower pressure improves safety as well as efficiency.
Urban and his group have come up with novel ways to synthesize nanoscale metal hydrides to achieve extremely high hydrogen storage capacity. Yet the kinetics, or rate of chemical reactions, is one of the main challenges with this material. “HyMARC will allow us to further probe solid-solid interfaces in metal hydrides and evaluate microstructural engineering as a pathway to improved kinetics,” he said. “The unique combination of expertise spanning these consortia gives us a peerless network of close collaboration to surmount the fundamental scientific barriers underpinning some of these sticky challenges.”
Both of these consortiums are funded by DOE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office, part of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and follow a similar model, where the core team consisting of the national labs will serve as a resource to industry and later also collaborate on innovative projects with universities and companies.
Another research focus is in catalysts, the subject of a collaboration between Berkeley Lab materials scientist Peidong Yang and scientists at Argonne National Laboratory. Last year they reported discovery of a new class of bimetallic nanoframe catalysts using platinum and nickel that are significantly more efficient and far less expensive than the best platinum catalysts used in today’s fuel cells.
Finally Berkeley Lab last month joined several other national labs as well as dozens of companies and other institutions in signing onto H2USA, a public-private partnership whose mission is “is to address hurdles to establishing hydrogen fueling infrastructure, enabling the large scale adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles.” Infrastructure is one of the critical challenges to wider hydrogen technology adoption, and one in which California has made a strong commitment.
“I’m very bullish on hydrogen. It’s clean and carbon-free, and it’s definitely a very integral part of the future energy economy,” Weber said. “Is it a very near-term drop-in replacement technology? No, I think it’s a little bit longer term, although we have commercial products like the Mirai available today. Like any new technology we have to go down the cost and manufacturing curves. As we bring in new ideas, concepts, and materials, I think we can easily bring down the cost.”