UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center associate professor Yang Yang stands next the ethanol fuel cell he and his team have developed.

UCF Researchers’ Ethanol Fuel Cells Offer New Alternative to Power Cars, Technology

By: Robert H. Wells on

A new material developed by the University of Central Florida may one day mean people could be pouring a drink for their car. That’s because UCF researchers are developing an alcohol-based power source for cars and other technology.

The power source —an ethanol fuel cell — is a renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels and uses less fuel and produces less emissions compared to a combustion engine.

This is because ethanol is used as a fuel to generate electricity rather than heat generated by combustion as in an engine. As a bonus, the approach requires no recharging time like is needed for battery-based electric vehicles, meaning consumers will have more options for alternatives to fossil fuels.

The fuel cell would be replenished similar to refilling a gas tank in a car, but instead of gasoline, ethanol would be used. Ethanol can be generated through fermentation of biomass such as corn and other plants.

The new technology is described in this month’s edition of the journal Nature Energy.

“Our research enables direct ethanol fuel cells to become a new player to compete with hydrogen-fuel cells and batteries in various sustainable energy fields,” says Yang Yang, an associate professor in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and study co-author.

The development of ethanol fuel cells has been hindered in the past by sluggish internal reactions that hamper their performance, he says.

UCF researchers are overcoming this problem by adding the element fluorine to the palladium-nitrogen-carbon catalysts that spur electrical production in the fuel cell.

“Our lab has continued to work on fluorine-doped materials for energy and sustainability,” Yang says. “We spent more than two years on this project, we never stop because we believe this invention will change the world.”

Yang says the fluorine works to increase the effectiveness of the ethanol fuel cell by enhancing catalytic activity and decreasing corrosion.

The researchers found their designed catalyst achieves a maximum power density of 0.57 watts per centimeter square and more than 5,900 hours of operation in direct energy ethanol fuel cells. This has several times more power and operation time than previously developed ethanol fuel cells.

Yang says the technology is ready for commercialization now, and the research team is working on reducing the raw materials used and to reduce the manufacturing cost of the developed catalysts.

Study co-authors at UCF were Jinfa Chang, a postdoctoral researcher with UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center; Guanzhi Wang and Wei Zhang, doctoral students with the NanoScience Technology Center and UCF’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Nina Orlovskaya, an associate professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Yang holds joint appointments in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, which is part of the university’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. He is a member of UCF’s Renewable Energy and Chemical Transformation (REACT) Cluster. He also holds a secondary joint-appointment in UCF’s Department of Chemistry. Before joining UCF in 2015, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. He received his doctorate in materials science from Tsinghua University in China.

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