Science Current Events | Science News |

Tiny probe could produce big improvements in batteries and fuel cells

June 01, 2016

A team of American and Chinese researchers has developed a new tool that could aid in the quest for better batteries and fuel cells.

Although battery technology has come a long way since Alessandro Volta first stacked metal discs in a "voltaic pile" to generate electricity, major improvements are still needed to meet the energy challenges of the future, such as powering electric cars and storing renewable energy cheaply and efficiently.

The key to the needed improvements likely lies in the nanoscale, said Jiangyu Li, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. The nanoscale is a realm so tiny that the movement of a few atoms or molecules can shift the landscape. Li and his colleagues have built a new window into this world to help scientists better understand how batteries really work. They describe their nanoscale probe in the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing.

Batteries, and their close kin fuel cells, produce electricity through chemical reactions. The rates at which these reactions occur determine how fast the battery can charge, how much power it can provide, and how quickly it degrades.

Although the material in a battery electrode may look uniform to the human eye, to the atoms themselves, the environment is surprisingly diverse.

Near the surface and at the interfaces between materials, huge shifts in properties can occur -- and the shifts can affect the reaction rates in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

Research in the last ten to fifteen years has revealed just how much local variations in material properties can affect the performance of batteries and other electrochemical systems, Li said.

The complex nanoscale landscape makes it tricky to fully understand what's going on, but "it may also create new opportunities to engineer materials properties so as to achieve quantum leaps in performance," he said.

To get a better understanding of how chemical reactions progress at the level of atoms and molecules, Li and his colleagues developed a nanoscale probe. The method is similar to atomic force microscopies: A tiny cantilever "feels" the material and builds a map of its properties with a resolution of nanometers or smaller.

In the case of the new electrochemical probe, the cantilever is heated with an electrical current, causing fluctuations in temperature and localized stress in the material beneath the probe. As a result, atoms and ions within the material move around, causing it to expand and contract. This expansion and contraction causes the cantilever to vibrate, which can be measured accurately using a laser beam shining on the top of the cantilever.

If a large concentration of ions or other charged particles exist in the vicinity of the probe tip, changes in their concentration will cause the material to deform further, similar to the way wood swells when it gets wet. The deformation is called Vegard strain.

Both Vegard strain and standard thermal expansion affect the vibration of the material, but in different ways. If the vibrations were like musical notes, the thermally-induced Vegard strain is like a harmonic overtone, ringing one octave higher than the note being played, Li explained.

The device identifies the Vegard strain-induced vibrations and can extrapolate the concentration of ions and electronic defects near the probe tip. The approach has advantages over other types of atomic microscopy that use voltage perturbations to generate a response, since voltage can produce many different kinds of responses, and it is difficult to isolate the part of the response related to shifts in ionic and electronic defect concentration. Thermal responses are easier to identify, although one disadvantage of the new system is that it can only probe rates slower than the heat transfer processes in the vicinity of the tip.

Still, the team believes the new method will offer researchers a valuable tool for studying electrochemical material properties at the nanoscale. They tested it by measuring the concentration of charged species in Sm-doped ceria and LiFePO4, important materials in solid oxide fuel cells and lithium batteries, respectively.

"The concentration of ionic and electronic species are often tied to important rate properties of electrochemical materials -- such as surface reactions, interfacial charge transfer, and bulk and surface diffusion -- that govern the device performance," Li said. "By measuring these properties locally on the nanoscale, we can build a much better understanding of how electrochemical systems really work, and thus how to develop new materials with much higher performance."


The article, "Scanning Thermo-ionic Microscopy for Probing Local Electrochemistry at the Nanoscale," is authored by Ahmad Eshghinejad, Ehsan Nasr Esfahani, Peiqi Wang, Shuhong Xie, Timothy C. Geary, Stuart Adler and Jiangyu Li. It appears in the Journal of Applied Physics on May 31, 2016 (DOI: 10.1063/1.4949473) and can be accessed at

The authors of this paper are affiliated with the University of Washington, Xiangtan University and the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Journal of Applied Physics is an influential international journal publishing significant new experimental and theoretical results of applied physics research. See

American Institute of Physics

Related Fuel Cells Current Events and Fuel Cells News Articles

Proton-conducting material found in electrosensory organs of sharks
Sharks, skates, and rays can detect very weak electric fields produced by prey and other animals using an array of unusual organs known as the ampullae of Lorenzini. Exactly how these electrosensory organs work has remained a mystery, but a new study has revealed an important clue that may have implications for other fields of research.

Speedy ion conduction in solid electrolytes clears road for advanced energy devices
In a rechargeable battery, the electrolyte transports lithium ions from the negative to the positive electrode during discharging.

Hybrid system could cut coal-plant emissions in half
Most of the world's nations have agreed to make substantial reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, but achieving these goals is still a considerable technological, economic, and political challenge.

How to make metal alloys that stand up to hydrogen
High-tech metal alloys are widely used in important materials such as the cladding that protects the fuel inside a nuclear reactor.

New harmonized test protocols for PEM fuel cells in hydrogen vehicles
A lack of standards for testing polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells - the most attractive type of fuel cells for powering vehicles - has hampered objective comparative assessment of their performance and durability under operating conditions and hence of their technological progress.

Penn chemists lay groundwork for countless new, cleaner uses of methane
Methane is the world's most abundant hydrocarbon. It's the major component of natural gas and shale gas and, when burned, is an effective fuel.

Saving sunshine for a rainy day: New catalyst offers efficient storage of green energy
We can't control when the wind blows and when the sun shines, so finding efficient ways to store energy from alternative sources remains an urgent research problem.

Pumping up energy storage with metal oxides
Material scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have found certain metal oxides increase capacity and improve cycling performance in lithium-ion batteries.

Wrinkles and crumples make graphene better
Crumple a piece of paper and it's probably destined for the trash can, but new research shows that repeatedly crumpling sheets of the nanomaterial graphene can actually enhance some of its properties. In some cases, the more crumpled the better.

Carbon leads the way in clean energy
Groundbreaking research at Griffith University is leading the way in clean energy, with the use of carbon as a way to deliver energy using hydrogen.
More Fuel Cells Current Events and Fuel Cells News Articles

Fuel Cell Fundamentals

Fuel Cell Fundamentals
by Ryan O'Hayre (Author), Suk-Won Cha (Author), Whitney Colella (Author), Fritz B. Prinz (Author)

A complete, up-to-date, introductory guide to fuel cell technology and application Fuel Cell Fundamentals provides a thorough introduction to the principles and practicalities behind fuel cell technology. Beginning with the underlying concepts, the discussion explores fuel cell thermodynamics, kinetics, transport, and modeling before moving into the application side with guidance on system types and design, performance, costs, and environmental impact. This new third edition has been updated with the latest technological advances and relevant calculations, and enhanced chapters on advanced fuel cell design and electrochemical and hydrogen energy systems. Worked problems, illustrations, and application examples throughout lend a real-world perspective, and end-of chapter review questions...

Build Your Own Fuel Cells

Build Your Own Fuel Cells
by Phillip Hurley (Author)

The technology of the future is here today - and now available to the non-engineer! Build Your Own Fuel Cells contains complete, easy to understand illustrated instructions for building several types of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells - and, templates for 6 PEM fuel cell types, including convection fuel cells and oxygen-hydrogen fuel cells, in both single slice and stacks. Low tech/high quality Two different low-tech fuel cell construction methods are covered: one requires a bandsaw and drill press, and the other only a few hand tools. Anyone with minimum skills and tools will be able to produce high quality fuel cells from readily obtainable materials - contact info for materials suppliers is included. Electrolyzers and MEAs Build Your Own Fuel Cells includes a detailed...

Fuel Cell Fundamentals

Fuel Cell Fundamentals
by Ryan O'Hayre (Author), Suk-Won Cha (Author), Whitney Colella (Author), Fritz B. Prinz (Author)

As the search for alternative fuels heats up, no topic is hotter than fuel cells. Filling a glaring gap in the literature, Fuel Cell Fundamentals, Second Edition gives advanced undergraduate and beginning level graduate students an important introduction to the basic science and engineering behind fuel cell technology. Emphasizing the foundational scientific principles that apply to any fuel cell type or technology, the text provides straightforward descriptions of how fuel cells work, why they offer the potential for high efficiency, and how their unique advantages can best be used. Designed to be accessible to fuel cell beginners, the text is suitable for any engineering or science major with a background in calculus, basic physics, and elementary thermodynamics. This new edition...

Fuel Cells

Fuel Cells
by Paul Breeze (Author)

Fuel Cells is a concise, up-to-date and accessible guide to the evolution of the use of electrochemistry to generate power. The author provides a comprehensive exploration of the history of fuel cells, the environmental concerns which came into prominence in the 1980s and the economic factors associated with this method of power generation. Examples discussed include Alkaline Fuel Cells, Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cells, Molton Carbonate Fuel Cells and Solid Oxide Fuel Cells, making this a valuable and insightful read for those in the power generation market and those in electrochemistry, such as engineers, managers and academics.Explores multiple variations of fuel cell technology and evaluates their cost and applicationProvides detailed historical context, beginning in 1839 with the...

Fuel Cells: Problems and Solutions

Fuel Cells: Problems and Solutions
by Vladimir S. Bagotsky (Author)

The comprehensive, accessible introduction to fuel cells, their applications, and the challenges they pose Fuel cells—electrochemical energy devices that produce electricity and heat—present a significant opportunity for cleaner, easier, and more practical energy. However, the excitement over fuel cells within the research community has led to such rapid innovation and development that it can be difficult for those not intimately familiar with the science involved to figure out exactly how this new technology can be used. Fuel Cells: Problems and Solutions, Second Edition addresses this issue head on, presenting the most important information about these remarkable power sources in an easy-to-understand way. Comprising four important sections, the book explores: The fundamentals of...

Build A Solar Hydrogen Fuel Cell System

Build A Solar Hydrogen Fuel Cell System
by Phillip Hurley (Author)

Learn how to construct and operate the components of a solar hydrogen fuel cell system: the fuel cell stack, the electrolyzer to generate hydrogen fuel, simple hydrogen storage, and solar panels designed specifically to run electrolyzers for hydrogen production. Complete, clear, illustrated instructions to build all the major components make it easy for the non-engineer to understand and work with this important new technology. Featured are the author's innovative and practical designs for efficient solar powered hydrogen production including: ESPMs (Electrolyzer Specific Photovoltaic Modules) – 40 watt solar panels designed specifically to run electrolyzers efficiently; a 40-80 watt electrolyzer for intermittant power from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind; and, a 6-12...

Electric Powertrain: Energy Systems, Power Electronics & Drives for Hybrid, Electric & Fuel Cell Vehicles

Electric Powertrain: Energy Systems, Power Electronics & Drives for Hybrid, Electric & Fuel Cell Vehicles
by John G. Hayes (Author), Gordon A. Goodarzi (Author)

Empowers engineering professionals and students with the knowledge and skills required to engineer electric vehicle powertrain architectures, energy storage systems, power electronics converters and electric drives. The modern electric powertrain is relatively new for the automotive industry, and automotive engineers are challenged with designing affordable, efficient, and high-performance electric powertrains as the industry undergoes a technological evolution. Co-authored by two electric vehicle (EV) engineers with decades of experience designing and putting into production all of the powertrain technologies presented, this book provides readers with the hands-on knowledge, skills, and expertise they need to rise to that challenge. This practical guide provides a comprehensive review of...

Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges and Future Research Needs

Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges and Future Research Needs
by Noriko Hikosaka Behling (Author)

Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges and Future Research Needs is a one-of-a-kind, definitive reference source for technical students, researchers, government policymakers, and business leaders. Here in a single volume is a thorough review of government, corporate, and research institutions’ policies and programs related to fuel cell development, and the effects of those programs on the success or failure of fuel cell initiatives. The book describes specific, internal corporate and academic R&D activities, levels of investment, strategies for technology acquisition, and reasons for success and failure. This volume provides an overview of past and present initiatives to improve and commercialize fuel cell technologies, as well as context and analysis to help potential investors...

Modern Electric, Hybrid Electric, and Fuel Cell Vehicles: Fundamentals, Theory, and Design, Second Edition (Power Electronics and Applications Series)

Modern Electric, Hybrid Electric, and Fuel Cell Vehicles: Fundamentals, Theory, and Design, Second Edition (Power Electronics and Applications Series)
by Mehrdad Ehsani (Author), Yimin Gao (Author), Ali Emadi (Author)

Air pollution, global warming, and the steady decrease in petroleum resources continue to stimulate interest in the development of safe, clean, and highly efficient transportation. Building on the foundation of the bestselling first edition, Modern Electric, Hybrid Electric, and Fuel Cell Vehicles: Fundamentals, Theory, and Design, Second Edition updates and expands its detailed coverage of the vehicle technologies that offer the most promising solutions to these issues affecting the automotive industry. Proven as a useful in-depth resource and comprehensive reference for modern automotive systems engineers, students, and researchers, this book speaks from the perspective of the overall drive train system and not just its individual components. New to the second edition: A case study...

Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet (MIT Press)

Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet (MIT Press)
by Peter Hoffmann (Author), Byron Dorgan (Foreword)

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. An invisible, tasteless, colorless gas, it can be converted to nonpolluting, zero-emission, renewable energy. When burned in an internal combustion engine, hydrogen produces mostly harmless water vapor. It performs even better in fuel cells, which can be 2.5 times as efficient as internal-combustion engines. Zero-emission hydrogen does not contribute to CO2-caused global warming. Abundant and renewable, it is unlikely to be subject to geopolitical pressures or scarcity concerns. In this new edition of his pioneering book Tomorrow's Energy, Peter Hoffmann makes the case for hydrogen as the cornerstone of a new energy economy. Hoffmann covers the major aspects of hydrogen production, storage, transportation, fuel use, and safety. He...

© 2017