Researchers from West Virginia University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown have earned an award known around the world as the “Oscar of Innovation” for their work on a technology that could vastly improve the performance of solid oxide fuel cells as a new source of clean electricity.

R&D Magazine today (June 22) named the work one of the “100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.” Previous R&D 100 Award winners include such innovations as HDTV and the automated teller machine.

Fuel cells are devices that generate electricity through a chemical reaction. They use hydrogen as fuel and little more than water is produced as a byproduct. NETL and WVU experts have been concentrating on a variation of the fuel cell known as a solid oxide fuel cell in a quest for a coating that can prolong the life of individual components and lower the cost of using fuel cells in large-scale power generation.

“This is excellent news, and I congratulate all of the researchers involved in the project,” President Jim Clements said. “Partnerships like the one WVU has with NETL are vital to our nation’s progress, and this innovation award demonstrates the quality, impact, and potential of this effort. To be on the cutting edge of a breakthrough that could lower the cost of power generation is huge for our state and nation.”

WVU is one of five universities that are working on energy research projects as part of NETL’s Regional University Alliance.

“One of the goals of our 2020 strategic plan is to excel in research, creativity and innovation, especially areas that address state and global issues,” said WVU Provost Michele Wheatly. “This new technology around fuel cells as a new source of clean energy is a great example of the type of research that’s going on in our labs and classrooms that could have an important impact on our economy and on our environment.”

Solid oxide fuel cells offer advantages because, unlike a wide range of other fuel cells that operate exclusively on hydrogen, they can also use fossil fuels, butane, methanol, other petroleum products and gases from biomass or coal and still only produce water and a small amount of carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

However, the stumbling block has been the life expectancy of the solid oxide fuel cells that must be stacked or bundled together to work. High temperatures and chemical reactions served to make the process expensive because of the need for frequent replacement of parts. That made the cost of the electricity produced in the process too high to be feasible.

The NETL-WVU team developed a special coating to drastically reduce that wear and tear and thus make the solid oxide fuel cell more feasible for producing large-scale power.

Xingbo Liu, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in WVU’s College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, was the principal investigator and co-developed the technology with NETL colleagues and funding. He was assisted by his Ph.D. student Junwei Wu. Liu explained that the new product could make solid oxide fuel cells viable for the first time by preventing the corrosion of the interconnects that are a critical part of the technology.

“The resulting increase in solid oxide fuel cell stack on-time will decrease the cost of electricity produced which will ultimately benefit the consumer,” Liu said.

NETL researchers on the project included Christopher Johnson who was a research scientist in the Energy System & Dynamics Division and now serves as project manager in Vehicle Technologies Division and Randall Gemmen who was a group leader and now serves as division director of Energy System & Dynamics Division.

In 2009, WVU teamed with a private sector company, Faraday Technology, Inc. of Clayton, OH, and received US Department of Energy technology transfer funding to improve the coating performance and to scale-up the coating for industrial-size interconnects making it available for commercial use. Faraday team members included principal scientists Heather McGrabb and Timothy Hall.

“WVU and NETL are working together to help America’s effort to gain energy independence,” Curt Peterson, WVU’s vice president for Research and Economic Development said. “This award is solid confirmation of the progress being made on that front.”

Cynthia Powell, director of NETL’s Office of Research and Development, said, “This award illustrates the power generated when you combine the innovation and excitement present at the University with the knowledge and capabilities resident at a National Laboratory.

“Clearly you get more than the sum of the parts and jointly winning this award is a fine example of how the universities and labs can achieve greater things when working together.”

The NETL/WVU work follows in prestigious footsteps. Since 1963, the R&D 100 Awards have identified revolutionary technologies newly introduced to the market. Many of these have become household names, helping shape everyday life for many Americans. These include the flashcube (1965), the automated teller machine (1973), the halogen lamp (1974), the fax machine (1975), the liquid crystal display (1980), the Kodak Photo CD (1991), the Nicoderm anti-smoking patch (1992), Taxol anticancer drug (1993), lab on a chip (1996) and HDTV (1998).

“We are delighted to see the impact of CEMR collaborative research by one of our faculty with NETL and the potential for continued economic development in WV,” Dean Gene Cilento said. “This research supports the important needs of the energy industry and can reduce dependence on imported oil.”

Winners of the awards are selected by an independent judging panel and the editors of R&D Magazine and will be recognized at the R&D 100 Awards Banquet in October in Orlando, FL.

The Awards identify and celebrate the top high technology products of the year. Sophisticated testing equipment, innovative new materials, chemistry breakthroughs, biomedical products, consumer items, high-energy physics: the R&D 100 Awards spans industry, academia and government-sponsored research.

-WVU-

gg/06/22/11

CONTACT: Gerrill Griffith, WVU Research Corp.
304.293.3743; gerrill.griffith@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.

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