Professors Reginald Farrow and Zafar Iqbal at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have collaborated on a series of innovations to make the energy conversion process that occurs within fuel cells as efficient as possible. “Science of Innovation” is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Science of Innovation - Fuel Cell Efficiency
ANN CURRY, reporting:
Cars need fuel, computers need electricity, and even pacemakers need batteries. To operate and function efficiently, machines of all shapes and sizes need sources of energy. One emerging new source is the fell cell which converts chemical energy into power.
Prof. ZAFAR IQBAL (NJIT): Fuel cells are energy providing sources. They're power sources.
CURRY: Two research professors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology are at the forefront of fuel cell technology and have collaborated on a series of innovations that help make the energy conversion that occurs within fuel cells as efficient as possible.
Prof. REGINALD FARROW (NJIT): We made a fuel cell which was a hundred times more efficient than anyone had ever made before, and so this is a case where one invention led to another invention.
CURRY: The inventions made by Reginald Farrow and Zafar Iqbal were produced using a field of science called nanotechnology, the study and application of materials between 1 and 100 nanometers in size that touches nearly every area of science.
FARROW: Think about the diameter of a human hair. Think about something much smaller than that by maybe a factor of a hundred. That's kind of the regime that nanoscientists work in.
CURRY: The collaboration of Farrow and Iqbal started in 2005 and initially it had nothing to do with fuel cells. Farrow was trying to invent a new method to measure electrical signals in living cells.
FARROW: What started this project was a goal that i had to make the world's smallest probe of biological cells, and not just make the smallest probe, but tap into it with many, many probes so that i can see what's happening on both sides of the cell at the same time.
CURRY: Farrow went to Iqbal for his expertise and understanding of something called a carbon nanotube, a form of carbon in the shape of a cylinder that is extremely strong, conductive and just one nanometer in diameter.
IQBAL: The electrons then flow rapidly through the nanotube so the electrical conductivity and the thermal conductivity is rapidly enhanced.
CURRY: Farrow thought carbon nanotubes would be ideal to measure the electrical signals of living cells. Through their collaboration, Farrow and Iqbal solved the problem of how to deposit these carbon nanotubes on the surface of a metal.
FARROW: How it works is you take carbon nanotubes that you've already made through any means and you mix them up in a solution. And you use an electric field to draw them to where you want almost like a magnet.
CURRY: With this successful new method, Farrow and Iqbal filed multiple patent applications with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Their breakthrough also helped Iqbal solve a problem within his own research on a different type of fuel cell, called a biofuel cell.
IQBAL: You can think of a biofuel cell or any fuel cell as a battery, as a battery that is being powered.
CURRY: Biofuel cells are able to convert chemical energy from organic materials such as glucose, or sugar, and turn it into power.
FARROW: He thought that depositing the carbon nanotubes using the same method that we were using to make the probes might give him better electrical contact for his biofuel cell.
CURRY: To create the biofuel cell, two carbon nanotubes are deposited just microns apart from each other on a silicon wafer chip. Enzymes attached to each carbon nanotube act as catalysts and speed up the chemical reaction to convert the glucose into energy, a key component of any fuel cell.
IQBAL: In the area of fuel cells, the catalyst that one uses in fuel cells, they need to be at a nanolevel for it to act.
CURRY: The innovations still continue. In 2012, Iqbal was part of a team that received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a nitrogen-based catalyst designed to replace platinum in hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Iqbal says nitrogen would be a better catalyst because is it less expensive and more durable. While biofuel cells are not yet used commercially, Farrow and Iqbal hope that one day their biofuel cell could be implanted in the human body to power biomedical devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators and prosthetic limbs.
IQBAL: In the biofuel cell as long as the person is alive, if it's implanted, there will be all this glucose being generated in the body. And that glucose will be the source, the source of power.
CURRY: Through the power of the innovation process, the strides made by Farrow and Iqbal in fuel cell research show us that the smallest of sources of energy have the potential to have an enormous impact on everything from cars to pacemakers.
We humans emitted 35.9 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2014, mostly from burning coal and natural gas in power plants, making fertilizer and cement, and other industrial processes. If chemists could capture carbon dioxide and turn it into chemical building blocks for other products, the way plants do, says Cornell University chemical engineer Lynden Archer, “carbon dioxide would not be a nuisance anymore, but a gift.”
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