skip to primary navigationskip to content

Searching for the missing piece of the fuel cell puzzle

last modified Jan 25, 2016 11:13 AM

In the academic environment, researchers are often so deeply focused on their particular areas that they aren’t aware of other fields where their work may have applications. It’s easy to understand. Here at the University of Cambridge, where there is increasing support for interdisciplinary research and engagement, it is often the case that an invention arising from a world-leading piece of research will need other pieces of the research jigsaw in order to present a compelling picture to potential customers or licensees. Sometimes this can be solved simply by a collaboration project between academic research groups, either at the same university or different institutions. Other times it can be difficult to find the right expertise to complete the puzzle.

An example of this is a recent invention from Professor Judith Driscoll and her team in the University’s Department of Materials and Metallurgy. Professor Driscoll is a recognised leader in her field of nanomaterials and, with her colleague Dr Shinbuhm Lee, has invented a new nanocomposite material that transports a form of electric charge many times more efficiently, and at much lower temperatures, than the current best-in-class, which requires heating to more than 500°C. For those particularly in the know: the nanocomposite approach has also enabled highly crystalline mesostructured cathodes to be designed, thus ensuring that cathodic processes are sped up at lower temperatures.

Driscoll believes the innovations could lead to new portable power sources with longer lifetimes and higher energy concentrations than today’s battery solutions. By incorporating this new material as the electrolyte in a micro-Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC), this safe, environmentally friendly, high energy density power source could have a multitude of applications including electronic consumer or medical devices, or those that need uninterruptable power supplies such as those used by the military or in recreational vehicles.

However, the research done to date has all been on the material itself, with the measurements on material properties, then extrapolated to infer the expected performance in a micro-solid oxide fuel cell. Ideally the next stage is to engineer the fuel cell using the new materials and test whether the system really does achieve the anticipated improvements, and what other implications there may be for other parts of the system.

The first steps are to design the appropriate micro-solid oxide fuel cell, make the cell, and then to test whether the operation temperature can be reduced to around 300°C, or even below, from the standard >500°C operation temperatures.

Cambridge Enterprise has been working with Driscoll to find partners who can help validate the material in a fuel cell system. Typically a first port of call for an academic researcher looking to expand into a new field would be to look for academic collaborators, but micro-SOFCs are a new technology and only a handful of research institutions are currently working on them. So in addition to looking for translational funding from various grant agencies, we’ve started to reach out to industry to find an organisation that’s interested in trying out the new material in a representative way.

So what are we looking for? Well, in this case a very specific set of capabilities – expertise in thin-film epitaxial growth combined with knowledge of micro-SOFC systems. These combined skills will allow a test micro-fuel cell device to be made and its performance measured. It’s a new area so it may be that our ideal partner doesn’t exist yet – but if you think your organisation might be interested in working with us to explore this exciting opportunity, please get in touch.

With the final pieces of the puzzle in place, the goal of a higher density, safer portable power source could be there for all to benefit.