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Professor Saiful Islam
Professor Saiful Islam
Atomic structure of fuel cell material
Atomic structure of fuel cell material

Press Release - 22 November 2007

'Cogwheel' discovery could lead to more efficient and greener fuel-cells

Recent research on new materials which could make environmentally-friendly fuel cells more efficient has been published in the leading journal Nature Materials.

Although a promising source of clean energy, fuel cells have high operating costs and the search is on for more efficient types.

Now Professor Saiful Islam, of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath, has gained an important insight into the atomic-scale properties of new compounds to help make fuel cells more efficient.

He looked at one type of fuel cell, called solid oxide fuel cells, which work by conducting ions - electrically-charged atoms - quickly from one end to another. The way the ions move has not been well understood.

Professor Islam, and his colleague Dr Peter Slater at the University of Surrey, found that negatively-charged oxygen atoms, which surround a positively-charged gallium atom in a tetrahedron, move in a similar way to a cogwheel in a clock, rotating into a neighbouring tetrahedron of atoms, and causing that to rotate. This is the most effective way for the material to conduct ions with an electric current.

Knowing this, chemists can create new oxide materials with tetrahedra-based structures to see if a more efficient system can be created.

“Developing new materials holds the key to cleaner and better fuel cells, which will help kick the fossil fuel habit,” said Professor Islam.

“Although I’m a chemist, I don’t wear a white lab coat - instead I use supercomputers to build atomic-scale structural models to help understand the underlying chemical properties that can be tested in experimental labs.

“In this study, we used a powerful combination of computer modelling and experiment to reveal, for the first time, ‘cogwheel-type’ mechanisms of moving ions at the atomic level.

“These mechanisms are unusual for crystalline oxides and could help throw light on how ions move in related materials.”

As the threat of global warming increases and oil stocks begin to reduce, the pressure is on to develop cleaner sustainable ways of powering homes and vehicles. This includes fuel cells to power zero-emission buses and to heat homes.

The research is funded by grants of £342,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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