Since 2006, Mines has been the home of the Colorado Fuel Cell Center (CFCC), which is located in the General Research Laboratory building. According to their website, the “CFCC seeks to advance fuel-cell research, development, and commercialization.”
“Fuel cells take the chemical energy within a fuel and convert it directly into electricity. A lot of folks compare fuel cells to batteries,” explains Professor Neal Sullivan, the director of the CFCC. “The main difference is that a battery is going to die sooner or later and then we’ve got to recharge it. Fuel cells will just continue to operate so long as the external gas tank stays full.”
These traditional fuel cells, however, are not the only application of cells researched at the CFCC.
“Of course a fuel cell center is going to study fuel cells. But what we also try to do is study how the same fundamental principles that make fuel cells work can be used to do other things,” says Professor Sullivan.
For example, one new area of fuel cell research is energy storage.
“We’ve got all these wind farms, all these solar panels, and everybody loves them. There’s no denying they’re great. But supply is intermittent. So while we all love those solar power generated electrons, they’re a hit or miss,” Sullivan explained.
One way to remedy this issue is to find a way to store the excess energy. The CFCC is working on this type of research.
“If you run a fuel cell in reverse, then they become energy storage devices. Instead of taking the chemical energy in fuel and turning it into electricity, we’ll take the electricity and turn it into chemical energy,” Professor Sullivan furthers. “So we do energy storage by making chemicals, using the excess capacity of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.”
Running the fuel cells in reverse, however, is not an automatic process.
“Fuel cells don’t just run the same when reversed. You’ve got certain material sets that make fuel cells run well and if you just go and run them backwards, they don’t work as well,” states Professor Sullivan. “So really you need a material set that does both forward and reverse.” For this reason, the CFCC is set up to create and test new materials.
Additionally, faculty at the CFCC are performing research on geothermic fuel cells, which are used to turn oil shale into oil by heating the surrounding rock.
The CFCC lab actually makes Mines home to “the world’s only completely operational geothermic fuel cell site.”
Professor Sullivan explained that obtaining and implementing the fuel cell stack during the initial month-long trial for the geothermic fuel cells provided valuable data and research to the CFCC.
“When you have nine stacks, what you find is that the constraints for one stack led to an opposite constraint for a stack on the other end,” Sullivan said of that the main lesson the researchers learned. “You run into a problem with one fuel cell stack and the way you would go about fixing it would destroy the stack at the other end. Figuring out operating conditions is a big deal.”
The CFCC will continue to apply fuel cell technology to new problems as they arise.
“If there’s one thing that I’m probably proudest of for this Fuel Cell Center, it’s the range of study – the range of the size and scale of what’s being studied,” Sullivan stated.
“We’ve got the fundamental stuff on ionic conductivities and things like that and then we’ve got big system stuff – complete fuel cell systems with pumps and blowers and fuel processors, data acquisition and giant 30 foot tall stacks of assemblies – all in one place,” illustrates Sullivan proudly. “And you don’t just see that anywhere. In the whole country, you’re not going to see that anywhere else.”
Professor Sullivan recommends that students interested in being involved in on-campus research get to know their instructors. The CFCC has both graduate and undergraduate student researchers, as do many other labs at Mines.
“A lot of students reach their goals by working in the Fuel Center and it’s great to help them get there,” explains Professor Sullivan.