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Green alternative to fluorinated membranes in PEM fuel cells

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells have high power density, low operational temperatures. If PEM runs on green hydrogen, it doesn’t even emit carbon. But their fabrication requires perfluorinated sulfonic acid (PFSA) polymers as an electrolyte separator membrane and as an ionomer in the electrode, which is quite expensive. Nafion® is the leading commercial PFSA polymer in the market. However, its manufacturing is costly as well as environmentally hazardous. Therefore, low-cost, environmentally friendly PFSA polymer substitutes are the primary goals for the fuel cell scientific community worldwide.

Researchers of the Texas A&M University and Kraton Performance Polymers Inc. experimented using NEXAR ™ polymer membranes in hydrogen fuel cells, studying different ion exchange capacities. NEXAR ™ polymer membranes are commercially available sulfonated pentablock terpolymers. They published the results in the Journal of Membrane Science . Previous studies showed that changing the ion exchange capacity, that is, the degree of sulfonation of NEXAR ™ membranes can alter the nanoscale morphology and significantly affect mechanical properties. This may influence fuel cell performance. Hence, this polymer may be used as a membrane alternative to Nafion® in fuel cells.

Experimental procedure

  1. Materials under consideration: three different variants of the polymer were taken up each with different Ion Exchange Capacities (IECs: 2.0, 1.5, and 1.0 meq / g), which were named NEXAR ™ -2.0, NEXAR ™ -1.5, and NEXAR ™ – 1.0 respectively.
  2. NEXAR ™ membrane preparation: NEXAR ™ membranes were fabricated by casting the NEXAR ™ solutions onto a silicon-coated Mylar PET film using an automatic film applicator under ambient conditions. Two different sizes were manufactured for measuring mechanical properties and conductivity.
  3. NEXAR ™ membrane characterization: mechanical properties using the size 25 mm (L) x 0.5 mm (W) membrane as test pieces were determined and for proton conductivity test pieces of size 30 mm (L) x 10 mm (W) were tested upon.
  4. Nafion® electrode fabrication: conventional Nafion® electrodes were also fabricated as controls to conduct simultaneous tests.
  5. NEXAR ™ electrode fabrication: NEXAR ™ electrodes were prepared in 2 ways for the 2-part study, each with a different composition.
  6. Electrode characterization: electrode profiling was done using a scanning electron microscopy (SEM).
  7. Membrane electrode assembly (MEA) and fuel cell tests: MEAs were fabricated by placing the membrane in between two catalyst-coated gas diffusion layers (anode and cathode) and heat pressing. The entire fuel cell assembly consisted of an MEA, two gaskets, and two flow plates placed between copper current collectors followed by end plates all held together by bolts. Fuel cell performance tests were conducted under ambient pressure with saturated (100% RH) anode and cathode flow rates of 0.43 L / min hydrogen and 1.02 L / min oxygen respectively.
  8. Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS): electrochemical impedance spectroscopy was performed after the fuel cell tests and the results analyzed.

Results

NEXAR ™ -2.0 and NEXAR ™ -1.5 had a similar proton conductivity at all temperatures, suggesting that there is a maximum limit in proton conductivity. On the contrary, NEXAR ™ membranes, when compared to Nafion® NR-212 membranes , have sufficient proton conductivity to translate into high power density hydrogen fuel cell performance.

However, NEXAR ™ -2.0 and NEXAR ™ -1.5 membranes (with Nafion® as Ionomer) did not exhibit expected fuel cell performance at all fuel cell operating conditions (temperature, pressure, voltage and humidity). Surprisingly, the NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane (with Nafion® as Ionomer) showed expected fuel cell performance across all fuel cell operating conditions and comparable power densities to Nafion® , suggesting that NEXAR ™ -1.0 may be a viable alternative to Nafion® in hydrogen fuel cells.

During fuel cell operation the NEXAR ™ -1.0 / NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane-ionomer was thermally and mechanically stable. These results were supported by the power density results, where MEAs with NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane-ionomers performed better than all the other MEAs.

From the above-mentioned results it became evident that the NEXAR ™ -1.0 variant was the optimal contender to substitute current state-of-the-art PFSA polymers.

Further, to understand the impact of the NEXAR ™ -1.0 ionomer on fuel cell performance, the composition of the ionomer and solvent mixture ratios in the catalyst ink solution were modified and investigated. Results suggested that NEXAR ™ -1.0 as an ionomer behaves similarly to Nafion® ionomers in fuel cell electrodes.

SEM analysis suggested that the amount of ionomer has a significant impact on the binding of ionomer to the catalyst particles, and consequently on the catalyst layer morphology. Therefore, there is an optimum catalyst / ionomer ratio of 2/1 for the Pt / C ionomer using NEXAR ™ -1.0 in fuel cell electrodes.

Conclusions

Ultimately, NEXAR ™ -1.0 is a potentially commercially viable greener substitute to Nafion® as a membrane and ionomer in PEM Fuel cell applications due to its high conductivity, however; alternative block compositions may improve the properties of the polymer to minimize resistances within the fuel cell to match the performance of Nafion® .

Overall Nafion® / Nafion® MEAs still showed the highest fuel cell performance when overall performance was taken into account but alternative hydrocarbon-based polymer compositions for the NEXAR ™ Polymer might provide a future non-fluorinated polymer as a  Nafion® substitute for PEM fuel cells .

Way forward

More analysis is required to perhaps get an accurate approximation of what variant of the NEXAR ™ polymer might cut the mark, future research may be focused upon exploring variants of Ion Exchange Capacities ranging from say 1 meq / g to 1.5 meq / g. But for now, it can be said that NEXAR ™ polymer shows promise as a viable replacement as a non-fluorinated membrane, and perhaps further research with more iterations of mechanical specs as well as chemical specs of the material we might witness a breakthrough.

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.memsci.2021.119330 : Sulfonated pentablock terpolymers as membranes and ionomers in hydrogen fuel cells , Journal of Membrane Science, 2021, 119330

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Self-cleaning membranes for biofouling control and prevention in water treatment

Membrane-based water treatment is critical for obtaining potable water, for example through wastewater treatment and seawater desalination. However, membrane fouling remains a common undesirable phenomenon affecting all membrane-based separation processes. Various efforts have been made to either directly control biofouling or to prevent it.

Ceramic membranes have better thermal and chemical stability along with higher fouling resistance and longer lifetimes when compared to polymeric membranes. These properties render ceramic membranes superior to polymers.

During the filtration process, the amount of water that can pass through a membrane is known as membrane flux. Due to membrane fouling, this flux is reduced and the affected membrane needs to be refurbished. Different membrane cleaning strategies have been researched including self-cleaning conductive polymeric membrane and electrically-assisted filtration but neither of them has shown a satisfactory flux recovery behavior.

Previous researches have suggested the use of ‘nano zeolite’ and carbon nanostructures for water treatment and desalination applications.

  • Zeolites are crystalline aluminosilicates possessing a well-defined inorganic structure, whose microporous 3-D channels and pores act as filters.
  • Carbon nanostructures consist of highly entangled carbon nanotubes which are made through a standardized chemical vapor deposition method.

To investigate the use of ceramic membranes made from nano zeolite and carbon nanostructures, a group of researchers at the New York University Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, developed a new electro-ceramic membrane and evaluated its antifouling performance. Their research findings were published in the Chemical Engineering Journal.

Research Approach:

Zeolite / CNS membrane preparation:

Nano zeolite-Y (nano-Y) membranes were prepared by dispersing the desired amounts of nano-Y, carbon nanostructures, and polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) binder in a water-alcohol solution.

The suspension was vacuum filtered through a microfiltration membrane filter and the membrane was peeled off from it before drying it at room temperature.

Three different ratios of zeolite and carbon nanostructures were prepared initially, with 60, 70, and 80 wt% zeolite. The carbon nanostructures and the binder were prepared at a ratio of 1:1.

Membrane characterization:

The electrical conductivity and mechanical properties of the dried membranes were investigated.

The surface morphology of the zeolite carbon nanostructure membrane was studied through scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy.

Other tests including the membrane contact angle test were also performed on the different labeled membranes.

Membrane cleaning setup and antibacterial assessment:

Two foulants, yeast (200 mg / L) and sodium alginate (30 mg / L) were used as biofoulants.

A custom-made cell was designed and a fresh membrane was used for each electrochemical measurement performed using linear sweep voltammetry.

Antibacterial properties of the nano-Y carbon nanostructure membranes were determined by the disk diffusion method. Different bacteria were cultured overnight at 37°C in a shaking incubator at 100 rpm.

Results:

Membrane cross-sections showed a uniform distribution of nano-zeolite particles with the carbon nanostructure. Decreasing tensile strength was seen interpreted as successful nano zeolite incorporation. These values changed from 3.3 MPa to 2.1, 1.1 or 0.3 MPa, respectively for 60, 70 and 80 weight% nano-Y. In addition, a decrease in water contact angle from 84.7±2° to 18±4° was demonstrated within 4 min.

The composite membrane demonstrated enhanced electrocatalytic activity for hydrogen evolution in two foulants; yeast and sodium alginate.
These MF electro-ceramic self-cleaning, anti-bacterial membranes seem promising for various separation processes such as in wastewater treatment, dye separation and oil / water separation where fouling and bacterial growth are a major concern.

(Photo: WET GmbH, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cej.2020.128395 Electro-ceramic self-cleaning membranes for biofouling control and prevention in water treatment, Chemical Engineering Journal, Volume 415, 2021

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Making zinc-air batteries rechargeable using developed cobalt(II) oxide as a catalyst

Zinc-air batteries are a promising alternative to expensive lithium-ion batteries. Compared with lithium-ion technology, zinc-air batteries have a greater energy density, very low production cost, and superior safety. However, their fundamental inability to recharge has lowered their wide-scale adoption.

Zinc-air batteries use charged zinc particles to store large amounts of electricity at a time. When electricity is required, the charged zinc is combined with oxygen from the air (and water), releasing the stored electricity and producing zincate. This process is known as oxygen reduction reaction (ORR).

Theoretically, this zincate can again be broken down into oxygen and zinc ions by passing electricity through it. This process, in turn, is called oxygen evolution reaction (OER). Using these reactions, zinc-air batteries can be made rechargeable, competing with lithium-ion batteries.

The major challenge of the recharging process is the sluggish kinetics of the reactions which lead to poor cycle life. These batteries require a catalyst that could potentially enhance the ORR and the OER reactions, making their kinetics fast. Hence, the development of highly efficient catalysts is of paramount importance for rechargeable zinc-air batteries.

Previous studies have suggested transition-metal oxides as great bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts because of their ability to provide sites for the reversible adsorption of oxygen. But the methods involved in creating well-defined defects for reversible adsorption of oxygen in such oxides are challenging.

To investigate the use of cobalt(II) oxide nanosheets deposited on stainless steel or carbon cloth as a bifunctional catalyst, a group of researchers from different universities of China and Canada collaborated and conducted several experiments. Their research findings were published in the journal Nano Energy .

Research approach

Preparation of catalyst

Different nano-structures were prepared using simple heat treatment and electrodeposition to test them as bifunctional electrocatalysts. The type of nano-structures prepared were:

      • Cobalt hydroxide  nanosheets on steel and carbon cloth
      • Layered cobalt (II) oxide nanosheet on steel and carbon cloth
      • Cobalt (II) oxide on steel
      • Layered cobalt tetroxide nanosheet on steel

Material Characterization

To understand the characteristics of the prepared samples, various analyticaland tests were carried out:

Charging and discharging tests

Later discharge and charge cycling tests of single cells were operated by the battery testing system.

Results

The simple heat treatment strategy created oxygen vacancy sites. According to the authors, layered cobalt-oxide nano-sheets exhibited excellent bifunctional ORR / OER performance. Investigations suggested abundant oxygen vacancies and cobalt sites be the reason for enhanced ORR / OER performance. Later, the developed layered cobalt-oxide nanosheets on steel were used as an electrode in a rechargeable zinc-air flow battery and a record-breaking cycle life of over 1,000 hours with nearly unchanged voltage was observed. Galvanostatic discharging-charging cycles also demonstrated long life and high energy efficiency.

This research carried out provides a new method to design highly efficient bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts that could be used to enhance the cycle life of rechargeable zinc-air flow batteries. At Frontis Energy we are looking forward to industrial applications.

(Photo: Engineersforum)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2020.105409 Wu et al., Cobalt (II) oxide nanosheets with rich oxygen vacancies as highly efficient bifunctional catalysts for ultra-stable rechargeable Zn-air flow battery, 2021

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Solid oxide fuel cells convert methane gas recovered from groundwater

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are highly efficient energy conversion devices and have low operating costs. They work at a temperature range of 800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius. This allows for the possibility of using internal conversion of hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen. Methane, methanol, petroleum, and other hydrocarbons can be converted to hydrogen (H2) directly within the fuel cell.

SOFCs have a number of additional advantages over traditional combustion engines or other types of fuel cells. For example, the high exhaust heat (over 800 degrees Celsius) makes them a useful application in the industry for cogeneration of electricity and heat. Because of combined cycles, high efficiency for electricity production can be achieved. In addition, due to the modular nature of SOFCs, they offer flexible planning of power generation capacity. This way, the use of SOFCs results in a further reduction of carbon dioxide emission.

The greatest advantage of SOFCs is that they can be operated with hydrocarbon fuels such as methane (CH4, the main component of natural gas). The direct use of methane eliminates the need for pre-reformers, thus reducing the complexity, size, and cost of the overall SOFC system.

Methane can be recovered from the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills, drinking water treatment plants, etc. The gas can also be recovered from groundwater because of the naturally occurring anaerobic degradation of organic matter in the subsurface or the infiltration of methane from natural gas reservoirs.

A research team from the Delft University of Technology assumed that the gas collected from groundwater treatment can be effectively used as fuel in SOFCs and put their hypothesis to a test. They published their results in the journal Journal of Cleaner Production. Currently, the methane recovered from the Drinking Water Treatment Plant (DWTP) of Spannenburg, Netherlands is either released into the atmosphere or flared, wasting a precious resource and contributing to further greenhouse emission in the form of CO2.

SOFCs provide the cleanest of the viable solutions of converting recovered methane into electrical energy, which, in turn, can be utilized by the DWTP. This process will decrease the power demands and simultaneously reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the DWTP.

The entire process was divided into the following steps:

  1. Methane was recovered from groundwater: The groundwater was pumped from the deep-wells directly to a system of vacuum towers, which remove 90% of the dissolved gas using a near vacuum of 0.2 bar.
  2. Subsequent treatment by plate aeration was done to remove the remaining 10% of methane in the groundwater.
  3. Tower aeration used to further remove CO2 before pellet softening process to lower hardness.

Recovered gas sampling:

200 mL of the recovered gas enriched in methane was used to determine the concentration of CH4, H2, Oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), carbon monoxide (CO), and CO2.

SOFC set up & thermodynamic approach:

A SOFC test station was used to carry out the experiments. The methane rich gas was fed to the anode and the open circuit potential was logged. Methane must be reformed to hydrogen and CO before electricity can effectively be generated in an SOFC.

Results:

The main components in the sampled gas were methane and CO2 with concentrations of 71 and 23 mol%, respectively. Additionally, the recovered gas contained 9 ppm of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which can permanently reduce the cell performance of an SOFC. Hydrogen sulphide was effectively removed (<0.1 ppm) with impregnated activated carbon

The use of CH4 recovered from the groundwater in an SOFC helps to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions and improve the sustainability of DWTPs. The recovered methane gas of the Spannenburg DWTP can be used to run a 915 kW SOFC system. This can supply 51.2% of the total electrical power demand of the plant and decreases greenhouse gas emissions by 17.6%, which is around 1794 tons of CO2.

The annual power generation of the SOFC system can be 8 GWh, which is about 3 GWh more than that produced by an internal combustion engine such as a gas turbine or piston engine.

In the future, the researchers will conduct a long-term tests to determine the safe operating condition of SOFC with respect to the carbon deposition issue. These tests will be extended to the SOFC stack level and pilot plant (in the range of a few kW systems)

(Photo: Indiamart)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.125877 (A solid oxide fuel cell fueled by methane recovered from groundwater, 2021)

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Production of Green Hydrogen through exposure of nano particles to sunlight

The demand for energy is increasing and raw material for the fossil fuel economy is diminishing. Moreover, the emission of gases from fossil fuel usage significantly degrades air quality. The carbon by-products produced from these fossil fuels severely affect the climate.

Hence, there is a need to find a renewable energy resource, that can be produced, stored, and used easily as per requirement. Hydrogen can be a promising energy resource as it is an abundantly available, non-toxic resource, and can be readily used to store excess electrical energy.

Hydrogen when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell produces electricity and the by-products obtained are water and heat. Based on the method of production of hydrogen it is categorized as blue hydrogen and green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as methane, gasoline, coal while green hydrogen is produced from non-fossil fuels / water. The cleanest way to produce eco-friendly hydrogen is via electrolysis of water where water is electrolyzed to separate hydrogen and oxygen. Renewable energy can be used as a power electrolyzer to produce hydrogen from water. Solar driven photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting is one of the common method used these days. In photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting, hydrogen is produced from water using sunlight.

PEC cells comprise of a working photoelectrode and a counter electrode. The photoelectrode consists of semiconductor material with a band gap to absorb solar light and generate an electron-hole pair. The photo-generated charges are responsible for the oxidation of water and its reduction into hydrogen. The PEC suffer devices from low stability and efficiency.

The research team from the  Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) along with researchers from the Institute of Chemistry and Processes for Energy, Environment and Health (ICPEES) , a CNRS-University of Strasbourg joint research lab published a way to significantly improve the efficiency of water dissociation to produce hydrogen by the development of sunlight photosensitive-nanostructured electrodes.

A comparative study between cobalt and nickel oxide nanoparticles deposited onto TiO 2 nanotubes prepared through anodization was carried out. The TiO 2 nanotubes were decorated with CoO (cobalt oxide) and NiO (nickel oxide) nanoparticles using the reactive pulsed laser deposition method. The surface loadings of CoO or NiO nanoparticles were controlled by the number of laser ablation pulses. The efficiency of CoO and NiO nanoparticles as co-catalysts for photo-electrochemical water splitting was studied by cyclic voltammetry, under both simulated sunlight and visible light illuminations and by external quantum efficiency measurements

The entire research work was carried out in the following steps:

Catalyzed Green Hydrogen synthesis
Steps followed to improve the efficiency of hydrogen production

(Source: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020)

In this study Cobalt (CoO) and Nickel (NiO) oxides were considered as effective co-catalysts for splitting water molecules. Both co-catalysts improved photo-electrochemical conversion of ultra violet as well visible light photons.

However, CoO nanoparticles were found to be the best co-catalyst under visible light illumination, with a Photo Conversion Efficiency almost 10 times higher than for TiO 2 . The performance of CoO nanoparticles got enhanced in the visible spectral region (λ> 400 nm). The possible reason can be a consequence of their visible bandgap which enables them to harvest more photon in the 400-500 nm range and transferring effectively the photo-generated electrons to TiO 2 nanotubes.

At Frontis Energy we are exited about these new discovery to improve hydrogen production from sunlight and hope to see an industrial application soon.

(Image: Engineersforum)

Reference: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020