Yanhai Du's Sustainable Dream
The basic concept of a fuel cell is simple — it converts chemical energy into electricity.
To hear Kent State Professor Dr. Yanhai Du tell it, however, 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 7.6 billion people in the world, and the number is growing,” Du said. “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 less raw material while generating two- to three times the energy output.
The average United States power grid efficiency is 33 percent, while fuel cell technology can reach 60 to 90 percent, Du said.
He said American energy consumption includes 45 percent electric energy, and 70 percent of that electricity is generated from fossil fuels, (e.g. coal and natural gas) while 18 percent is nuclear. Only 12 percent of American energy comes from renewable sources, he said — mostly hydraulic power, with small contributions from wind (3.5 percent) and solar (0.5 percent).
The problem with changing energy sources, 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 fuel cell 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 said.
Du was among an elite few in the field to pioneer micro-tubular fuel cell development. In the early 2000s, he was the first to bring microtubular solid oxide fuel technology from the lab into mass production.
Micro-tubular 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, which could 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 said.
“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 said.
The technology is even more promising when paired with basic energy sources that are already clean, like solar or wind power.
“A fuel cell is a magic box,” Du said. “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,” he said. “Not so much for my own career, but because I want for them, in five to ten years, when they think about fuel cell technology, to say ‘Kent State’.”
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, in Youngstown, 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 said his long-term goal is to add an Additives Manufacturing major to the Kent State curriculum, which could lead to cross-disciplinary studies and research. He’s even suggested 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 said.
His efforts toward that goal took a major step in 2017 when Du won a $485,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research for his project, “Laser-Sintering System for Research on Additive Manufacturing of Advanced Fuel Cells.”