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Power Semiconductors

Researchers Develop Thin-film Electrolyte for Next-gen Power Storage

25 January 2016

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have created a new thin-film electrolyte material that helps solid oxide fuel cells operate more efficiently and at a lower cost than those composed of conventional materials. The discovery has potential applications for portable power sources.

This fuel cell electrolyte was developed to offer cleaner, more efficient energy. (Source: University of Cambridge)This fuel cell electrolyte was developed to offer cleaner, more efficient energy. (Source: University of Cambridge)

The new materials offer the possibility of achieving the same performance levels as current high-temperature fuel systems, or better yet, improving their efficiency rates, which could enable lower fuel consumption and less waste energy.

The material was invented by Professor Judith Driscoll of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy and her colleague Dr. Shinbuhm Lee, with the help of researchers from Imperial College and U.S.-based labs.

Solid oxide fuel cells contain a negative electrode (cathode) and positive electrode (anode), with an electrolyte material sandwiched between them. The electrolyte transports oxygen ions from the cathode to the anode, which creates an electric charge. Fuel cells have the potential to run indefinitely, as opposed to conventional batteries, if supplied by a source of fuel like hydrogen or a hydrocarbon, and oxygen.

The team decided to use thin-film electrolyte layers to create a concentrated energy source. Their new development may have potential applications in portable power sources for electronic consumers or medical devices, as well as military vehicles that require an uninterrupted power sources.

“With low power requirements and low levels of polluting emissions, these fuel cells offer an environmentally attractive solution for many power source applications,” says Dr. Charlanne Ward of Cambridge Enterprise, which is managing the patent that was filed in the US. “This opportunity has the potential to revolutionize the power supply problem of portable electronics, by improving both the energy available from the power source and safety, compared with today’s battery solutions.”

The new electrolyte material also reduces heat loss and short circuiting due to low electronic conductivity and reduces the risk of fuel leaks due to its high density.

“The ability to precisely engineer and tune highly crystalline materials at the nanoscale is absolutely key for next-generation power generation and storage of many different kinds,” says Driscoll. “Our new methods and understanding have allowed us to exploit the very special properties of nanomaterials in a practical and stable thin-film configuration, resulting in a much improved oxygen ion conducting material.”

Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialization arm, is working with Driscoll to take the technology to market, seeking to collaborate with a fuel cell manufacturer with expertise in thin-film techniques to validate the new material.

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