Exploring alternative fuels in fuel cells
Ian Robinson always felt a strong pull toward the sciences. In high school, Robinson found true enjoyment and success in physics and chemistry courses, which later shaped his motivation to enter the field of energy.
Inspired to explore alternative energy conversion technologies, Robinson obtained a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering. Now a doctoral student in the same field at the University of Maryland, Robinson took his education to the next level through applied research with the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program (MLEF).
The MLEF Program provides students with fellowship opportunities to gain hands-on research experience with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy. The program’s mission is to strengthen and increase the pipeline of diverse future STEM professionals.
Robinson traveled across the country to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), California, to conduct research in the Energy Conversion Group. Under the mentorship of Mike Tucker, Ph.D., Robinson began a project in metal-supported solid oxide fuel cells (MS-SOFCs).
A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity directly through a chemical reaction. MS-SOFCs are a class of fuel cells that generate electricity by oxidizing a fuel; typically hydrogen is used as the fuel for the reaction. Generally, MS-SOFCs are highly efficient. They have long-term stability, low emissions and a low cost. Because of their advantages, MS-SOFCs are being developed for a wide variety of applications, particularly for electric vehicles.
“The mentorship during this experience has helped me grow as a researcher and motivated my scientific pursuits even further.”
The goal of Robinson’s research was to investigate which fuels other than hydrogen could be used with MS-SOFCs. Other fuels would allow flexibility for MS-SOFCs, including the possibility of improving battery electric vehicles. MS-SOFCs may serve as range extenders for electric vehicles. Other possible applications include distributed power generation and off-grid generators. Fuels of interest include methane, natural gas, ammonia and propane.
Robinson assembled MS-SOFCs and observed initial data on the cells’ performance before deciding whether to continue testing. If a cell performed well, it would go on to further testing. If a cell performed poorly, it would be removed and analyzed for possible improvements. Robinson electrochemically tested and characterized the behaviors of cells. His efforts represent an advancement for the research group.
For Robinson, participating as a fellow with the MLEF Program was an excellent opportunity to conduct applied research related to his doctoral study. He also appreciated collaborating with scientists at a national laboratory.
“The mentorship during this experience has helped me grow as a researcher and motivated my scientific pursuits even further,” said Robinson. He returned to the University of Maryland to finish his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering.
The MLEF Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.