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Published on October 12th, 2009 | by Tina Casey

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“Mystery” Ceramic Could Lead to Cheaper, Stronger Hydrogen Fuel Cells

October 12th, 2009 by  
 

A new ceramic material called Barium-Zirconium-Cerium-Yttrium-Ytterbium Oxide (BZCYYb) could lead to more efficient, lower cost fuel cells.

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They don’t know how it works, but it does.

A team of researchers at Georgia Tech has developed a new high-tech ceramic material that could make solid oxide fuel cells less costly and less finicky, and much more durable and efficient. The material is called Barium-Zirconium-Cerium-Yttrium-Ytterbuim Oxide. [Ed note: Say that three times fast and you get a gold star.] I don’t know if it’s any less of a tongue twister, but it’s known as BZCYYb for short.

Solid oxide fuel cells are of interest because they can generate energy without the need for an expensive catalyst such as platinum, which is typically used in hydrogen fuel cells. While nanotechnology is enabling the development of hydrogen fuel cells that use less platinum, with BZCYYb the prospects look good for ditching the precious metal entirely in favor of more sustainable technology—if solid oxide systems can be developed in a commercially viable form, that is.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells and the Problem of Heat

Heat is one problem standing between solid oxide technology and the mass market. In conventional solid oxide fuel cells, the anode (the part that conducts incoming electric current) is a composite that includes a ceramic called yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ). YSZ excels as a catalyst and a conductor, but researchers at Georgia Tech note that it loses conductivity at low temperatures, requiring an operating temperature as high as 1,000 degrees Centigrade. Sulfur contamination and carbon deposits are two other significant problems with YSZ anodes. To counter these three factors, solid oxide fuel cells that use YSZ have high complexity systems that employ low sulfur fuel and exotic heat-tolerant materials, leading to higher costs, less durability, and lower efficiency.

The BZCYYb Difference

BZCYYb resolves the heat problem through its ability to retain conductivity at temperatures as low as 500 degrees centigrade. It also resists carbon deposits and it tolerates relatively high concentrations of sulfur compared to YSZ. That’s where the mystery lies. Researchers have not yet pinpointed the factors behind BZCYYb’s clean-running capabilities, but they believe that the material’s more powerful catalytic performance could be enabling it act on sulfur and hydrocarbons more effectively. With these three problems resolved, BZCYYb could lead to the design of more simple, compact, and cost-effective solid oxide systems. Potentially BZCYYb could be used to coat conventional YSZ anodes, or replace them entirely.

The Fuel Cell of the Future

Solid oxide technology is one among several avenues that researchers are exploring to make fuel cells less expensive and more light, compact, simple, and flexible. For example, the company Full Cycle Energy has licensed a non-platinum fuel cell based on a high performance alkaline membrane that enables it to use biofuels in addition to hydrogen. The Department of Energy is pitching in with millions in research funds, and the U.S. military is eager to adopt more robust, portable power sources, so look for a continuing wave of new developments in the near future.

Image: BotheredByBees on flickr.com.


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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • FYI: There is no such thing as “Georgia Tech University”. The school’s name is “Georgia Institute of Technology” or “Georgia Tech” for short.

    Where are the sources for this article? Name of researcher(s) or a reference to an article in a scientific journal would be appropriate.

  • FYI: There is no such thing as “Georgia Tech University”. The school’s name is “Georgia Institute of Technology” or “Georgia Tech” for short.

    Where are the sources for this article? Name of researcher(s) or a reference to an article in a scientific journal would be appropriate.

  • Nick Chambers

    Uh Graham, I have news for you that will probably make you feel a bit silly, so sit back and take a nice deep swig of some bourbon before reading the rest…

    Simply click on the first link in the post for “Georgia Tech University” and you’ll find that, Georgia Insitute of Technology refers to itself as “Georgia Tech” and that the article is sourced from that link. You could also have simply looked in the table of contents for the journal Science.

  • MichaelBryant

    Ice engine can get 60 percent efficiency at 500c if I did my math right. I don’t why just jet engine to run off hydrogen.

  • MichaelBryant

    Ice engine can get 60 percent efficiency at 500c if I did my math right. I don’t why just jet engine to run off hydrogen.

  • Drew Watson

    The correct name for the school is “Georgia Institute of Technology”, not “Georgia Tech University”.

  • Drew Watson

    The correct name for the school is “Georgia Institute of Technology”, not “Georgia Tech University”.

  • Drew Watson

    Um, Nick. I clicked the link. It’s from a Georgia Tech website. Graham and I are correct – the school is called “Georgia Institute of Technology” or “Georgia Tech” for short. The article references both of those names.

    What it doesn’t reference is “Georgia Tech University”. I’m an alum, as I imagine Graham is, and we see this mistake often in the press.

    You don’t call MIT “Massachusetts Tech University” do you?

    Thanks.

  • Drew Watson

    Um, Nick. I clicked the link. It’s from a Georgia Tech website. Graham and I are correct – the school is called “Georgia Institute of Technology” or “Georgia Tech” for short. The article references both of those names.

    What it doesn’t reference is “Georgia Tech University”. I’m an alum, as I imagine Graham is, and we see this mistake often in the press.

    You don’t call MIT “Massachusetts Tech University” do you?

    Thanks.

  • Nick Chambers

    Good grief, you alums are quite sensitive to something that 99.9% of the rest of the world won’t care a single lick about—-all over 1 silly word. It’s changed. You happy?

  • Thank you for changing it. It’s a common mistake but I figure the editors would like to know.

  • Thank you for changing it. It’s a common mistake but I figure the editors would like to know.

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