Designing a better fuel cell

Elena Baranova

Never mind the jet pack or the flying car, where’s my hydrogen fuel cell? Year after year, technological predictions have hailed the coming of this highly efficient energy system, which offers clean, abundant power by chemically converting source material directly into electricity. We can hardly wait to replace the pollution-belching engines and generators in our lives with these quiet, tidy devices emitting nothing more noxious than water vapour.

Unfortunately, the key ingredient of this technology—hydrogen—is highly explosive, making it difficult to extract, transport and store. Year after year, these difficulties foil the promise of fuel cells, which cannot compete with established power sources in the marketplace.

Elena Baranova is not ready to dismiss that promise, but she is eager to get rid of this problematic fuel. The University of Ottawa professor of chemical and biological engineering is therefore exploring the prospect of fuel cells that use ethanol, the simple alcohol base that is already widely used in automotive engines.

“You take ethanol, which is not hazardous, not toxic for humans, and convert it to energy,” she says.

Moreover, ethanol can be made from products that would otherwise qualify as garbage, such as leftover corn stalks or wood pulp. “We would like to produce this ethanol from biomass, waste material,” says Baranova.

For all of these advantages, ethanol simply cannot store as much energy as hydrogen, so this kind of fuel cell would not be able to run an automobile. However, it should be more than sufficient to provide long-term electricity for smaller appliances, such as mobile phones or computers.

That kind of progress will be possible if this complex organic molecule can be convinced to surrender all of the electrons it contains, so that the fuel cell generates as much electricity as possible. Ethanol fuel cells now yield fewer than half of those electrons. Baranova is seeking a powerful catalyst, an agent to promote and enhance this reaction so that all of the electrons are released.

Designing such an agent is a precise business, one that calls for exceedingly thin layers of metals to optimize their catalytic performance. With that goal in mind, Baranova has joined forces with a group at Aix-Marseille University in France, which has some of the world’s most sophisticated hardware for carrying out atomic layer deposition.

“With this equipment, you can control the nanostructure of a deposit down to the atomic level,” she explains, noting that this approach can create a layer with a carefully controlled thickness ranging between a few atomic layers to several nanometers. Such accuracy will make it possible to determine the optimal thickness and structure of the intended catalyst.

Baranova’s access to this technology has benefited from the France-Canada Research Fund, an initiative of the French Embassy in Ottawa and 20 universities across the country, including the University of Ottawa. Created in 2000, the fund is administered jointly by the University of Ottawa and the French Embassy and has provided $2.5 million to nearly 200 different projects. This funding became an incentive for Baranova to share expertise and technology with a researcher she first met while completing her doctorate in Switzerland. Such collaboration is precisely what the fund is intended to promote.

“Today, more than ever, science and innovation are at the heart of the partnership between France and Canada,” said France’s ambassador to Canada, François Delattre, when the program marked its 10th anniversary in 2010. The program continues to provide modest but vital support to a wide range of researchers, who have been able to enhance the quality of their work just as Baranova has done.


Looking south for science

Just as Elena Baranova’s innovative work on an ethanol fuel cell has benefited from a well established international research agreement with France, a similar agreement is opening up new avenues for cooperation with the scientific community in Brazil. CALDO, a consortium founded by the universities of Alberta, Laval, Dalhousie and Ottawa, has become the first Canadian partner in a Brazilian government program to send thousands of that country’s most outstanding science students to study at some of the world’s leading institutions.

During an official visit to Brazil in 2012, Governor General David Johnston announced that Canada is looking forward to receiving some 12,000 students who will be taking part in Brazil’s Science without Borders program. So far, the University of Ottawa has welcomed about 80 Brazilian students under this initiative.

The collaboration with Brazil does not end there. This past fall, five researchers from the University of Ottawa, in fields as diverse as medicine, chemistry and the arts, were awarded the first research grants from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and CALDO, which support two-year projects and the exchange of researchers and graduate students.


by Tim Lougheed

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