Graduate students at UNM are trying to fight the looming world energy crisis — from the basement of the Farris Engineering Building.
The research group, headed by Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Plamen Atanassov, is trying to make catalysts for alternative fuel cells.
“We’re developing catalysts for fuel cells that are cheaper, cost-efficient and stable,” said Sadia Kabir, a Ph.D. engineering student who has been working on the project for two years.
Kabir is one of fifteen graduate students, each focused on a different catalyst and a different fuel for said catalyst, such as hydrogen, ethanol or methanol. A fuel cell is a device that coverts chemical energy to electrical energy, she said.
“As long as you keep putting your fuel into the system, you’re going to get power out of it. It’s just very efficient, because there’s no combustion involved,” she said.
Fuel cells work by producing free electrons, and by extracting the electrons, you get electricity, she said, with the primary byproduct being water vapor.
“There are different types of fuel cells, it just depends on the application,” she said.
The system Kabir is working on uses ethanol, instead of hydrogen, as a fuel, she said. This is better because hydrogen is very combustible and can explode easily under the wrong circumstances, whereas ethanol cannot.
When introduced to the fuel cell, the ethanol is oxidized by the catalyst that turns it into water vapor and carbon dioxide in very small amounts, Kabir said. This process produces electrons to be extracted and used to power a variety of devices and machines, and as a backup power source.
“You don’t need to be connected to a grid to produce power using a fuel cell,” she said. “You just need the fuel.”
For example, Kabir said, if your car broke down and you needed to call someone but your phone was dead, “all you have to do is take your bottle filled with ethanol — which is, by the way, very cheap. Pour it into your fuel cell, give it a shake or two, connect your phone to it, and that’s it.”
She said they are still in the initial steps of finding out how much power they can extract from ethanol, and they are trying to discover what catalyst can best break ethanol down. Currently, platinum is the best catalyst, but as many know, it is very expensive, she said.
“We’re trying to synthesize catalysts that are cheaper than platinum but just as active,” she said.
To this end, Kabir said, she is also working with palladium as a catalyst, which has the same properties as platinum (good stability and good activity), except it is 60 percent cheaper
Kabir is making the most of her palladium particles by putting them in graphene, she said, which is a carbon construction in the form of crystalline sheets, much more two-dimensional than amorphous carbon: “think of graphene as carbon on steroids.”
The graphene, as a support, holds the palladium particles in place, she said. The combination is then put into a fuel cell, where it is recorded how well it performs in comparison to platinum.
Kabir said she then proceeds to add ethanol as a fuel and uses the catalyst to see a power output. The experiment is connected to an external computer that displays how much current she is getting.
So far, the results appear to show that palladium is three times as active as platinum, she said.
“The whole Ph.D. work is not just making a good catalyst, you have to study why it is better,” she said. “The ‘why’ is the part a lot of people struggle with.”
What’s next is studying how she can improve it further — how she can optimize the combination.
“I’m currently looking into making the palladium particles more stable and try to see how active they are, versus all the other different alloys that are out there,” Kabir said.
The possible benefits of this research are many and far-reaching, she said. The results could help power the world into the foreseeable future
“Oil prices are going to keep rising; you are going to run out of all of your natural resources within the next fifty years,” Kabir said. “It’s only a matter of time before that actually happens, and you don’t want to be too late, so we’re making this alternative.
“You can look at solar, you can look at wind, yeah, but they all depend on the environment. You can’t control it.”
These fuel cells can serve as alternatives when the time comes, and with the fuel cell, “you don’t have to wait for the sun to come out.”
For Kabir and her fellow researchers, the future looks hopeful.
“I think fuel cells have a very promising future, I really do. It’s just a matter of time,” she said. “How fast we can get it to be more cost-efficient and durable, but once it’s out there I think people are going to start using it and liking it. That’s my motivation: I feel like I’m contributing to the world energy crisis.”