Clean, efficient electricity is essential for constructing a low-carbon future, but more advanced technologies are needed to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. Scientists around the world are rising to the challenge, delivering new energy solutions that could finally tip the scales in favor of sustainability.
Due to its contribution to climate change, carbon gets a bad rap. But researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) believe carbon could help both the public and private sector make good on the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Scientists at INL have developed a new fuel cell technology capable of producing clean and efficient electricity from solid carbon sources, such as organic waste, biomass and coal. According to Dong Ding, a materials engineer at INL, the direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC), as it is known, operates at lower temperatures and produces higher maximum power densities than earlier designs. What’s more, DCFCs’ reliance on readily available materials means that their efficiency rivals — or could even be greater than — that of conventional hydrogen fuel cells. “You can skip the energy-intensive step of producing hydrogen,” Ding told Phys.org.
Historically, DCFCs required high temperatures and expensive materials and were unable to effectively utilize the carbon fuel. The team at INL overcame these challenges by developing an electrolyte with highly conductive doped cerium oxide and carbonate — a move that allowed for enhanced performance at low temperatures.
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To improve the efficiency of the fuel cell, researchers designed a 3-D ceramic textile anode that maximizes the amount of surface area available to carbon fuel via a network of porous and hollow fibers that are woven together like a piece of cloth. The design also incorporates a molten composite fuel made from solid carbon and carbonate. “At the operating temperature, that composite is fluid-like,” Ding explained. “It can easily flow into the interface.”
Ding says that the fuel cell could easily be paired with carbon capture technology, as DCFCs produce pure carbon dioxide. The technology is already sparking interest in the energy sector for its potential to ease the transition to a carbon-free future.
The full DCFC study was published in the journal Advanced Materials.
Meanwhile, solar power is getting a major upgrade thanks to China’s Hanergy Thin Film Power Group Limited. The Group’s US-based subsidiary Alta Devices has designed the highest efficiency single-junction solar panel ever produced.
With its record-setting 25.1 percent conversion efficiency, the module can be used to power a range of product such as electric vehicles, smart sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that were previously limited by low-efficiency solar solutions.
“As we move toward a world of autonomous machines, developing sources of power that can be replenished without interruption is increasingly important,” said Rich Kapusta, Chief Marketing Officer at Alta Devices. “Each time our technology achieves a new world record, it has been designed with a clear focus on this goal.”
“Our goal with this module was to demonstrate world record efficiency in mass production at commercial scale. Applications for this type of thin and flexible solar power are becoming broader and more critical,” added Dr. Jian Ding, SVP of Hanergy and CEO of Alta Devices.
Alta’s ultra-efficient thin-film solar technology, which features moisture and UV radiation resistant gallium arsenide (GaAs), performs at up to two times that of ordinary flexible solar cells, making them the current world leader in terms of module efficiency for thin film solar technology. Since 2010, Alta’s GaAs single-junction cells have broken conversion efficiency records four times and still hold the world’s highest (lab) conversion efficiency rate of 28.8 percent.
Hanergy has worked with European carmakers to integrate its solar cells into panoramic glass automobile roofs. The company’s thin-film panels have also been proven to be appropriate for drone applications.