The Future of Fuel Cells: Pioneering Professor Focuses on Fuel Cell Technology | Kent State University

The Future of Fuel Cells: Pioneering Professor Focuses on Fuel Cell Technology

The basic concept of a fuel cell is simple – it converts chemical energy into electricity.

To hear it from Kent State University Assistant Professor Yanhai Du, Ph.D., in the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, however, the impact of modern and emerging fuel cell technology is anything but basic.

Fuel cells have the potential to deliver on the promise of the elusive, cold-fusion theory of the 1990s – clean, super-efficient, affordable energy that could reduce carbon emissions exponentially.

“We have 7.2 billion people in the world, and it’s growing,” Du says. “The more people you have, the more energy you need. What we rely on now is 80 percent fossil fuels.”

Fuel cells may eliminate that problem, using fewer raw materials, while generating 2-3 times the energy output.

The average U.S. power grid efficiency is 33 percent, while fuel cell technology can reach 60-90 percent, Du says.

He says American energy consumption includes 45 percent electric energy, and 70 percent of that electricity is generated from fossil fuels, such as coal, while 18 percent is nuclear.

Only 12 percent of American energy comes from renewable sources, he says – mostly hydraulic power, with small contributions from wind (3.5 percent) and solar (0.5 percent).

The problem with changing energy sources, Du says, especially when moving away from raw materials that fundamentally produce heat energy, is that it reduces efficiency.

For that reason, Du’s work at Kent State aims to create even more efficient technology focusing on fuel cells fed with natural gas, coal gas, biogas, propane or jet fuel, as opposed to hydrogen – a fuel source for many fuel cell models. Hydrogen gas is not a natural resource like fossil fuels, and the process to make it costs money and consumes energy, Du says. 

Du was among an elite few in the field to pioneer microtubular fuel cell development, and in the early 2000s, was the first to bring microtubular solid oxide fuel technology from the lab into mass production.

Microtubular solid oxide fuel cells can generate higher volumetric power density (measured in watts per volume) and allow faster startup and shutdown operations.

Du also invented the “spiral cell” fuel cell that can potentially produce as much as 5-10 times more power than regular tubular fuel cells. This technology has been patented in the United States and internationally.

Another of his inventions is a miniature JP-8 (jet propellant) desulfurizer that enables portable power using fuel cells that run on JP-8. The high sulfur content of jet fuel makes it otherwise toxic to fuel cells and will cause them to fail. Du’s desulfurizing agent solves that problem, making jet fuel go farther. This technology was licensed by a commercial fuel cell company.

Du’s focus doesn’t just lie in research and development, though. For him, teaching the value of the technology is every bit as important.

Kent State received $50,000 from the Dominion Foundation’s Dominion Higher Education Partnership to set up fuel cell demonstrations to show students, visitors and the Kent State community how fuel cell technology works, Du says.

“Kent State wants to educate our community so they know there is such a technology that will allow us to use fossil fuels as well as renewable fuels to generate electricity to meet our demand while greatly cutting down carbon emissions,” Du says.

The technology is even more promising when paired with basic energy sources that are already clean, such as solar or wind power.

“A fuel cell is a magic box,” Du says. “If the energy can come from a renewable source like solar, we can greatly improve our potential to reduce our carbon emissions.”

With fuel cell technology an area of international research focus, and Ohio named consistently on recent annual lists of the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Top 5 Fuel Cell States” – along with California, Connecticut, New York and South Carolina – Du’s work may soon put Kent State at the forefront of a critical technology field.

“We need to contribute to research, investment and workforce training in this area – not so much for my own career, but because I want for them, in 5-10 years, when they think about fuel cell technology, to say ‘Kent State,’” he says.

Du also isn’t just studying fuel cell design, either. He wants to cross over into the manufacturing end of it as well, especially additive manufacturing, in which America Makes, based in Youngstown, Ohio, is a national leader.

He says additive manufacturing, and more specifically 3D printing, is a way to produce high-quality, advanced-technology fuel cells at lower costs.

Du’s long-term goal is to add an additives manufacturing major to Kent State curriculum. Creating that could lead to cross-disciplinary studies and research, he says, even suggesting that local companies that specialize in the fields might be interested in sponsoring the programs to help prepare a new generation of well-trained workers.

“If we could marry these two, that would be pretty cool,” he says.

For more information about Du, visit www.kent.edu/caest/yanhai-du-phd.

For more information about Kent State’s College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, visit www.kent.edu/caest.