Emory chemistry receives $7.5 million to lead fuel cell research

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | May 25, 2018

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"A deeper understanding of electrochemical processes is important in the quest for more efficient, renewable forms of energy," says Emory physical chemist Tim Lian, shown in his lab. Photo by Stephen Nowland, Emory Photo/Video

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded $7.5 million to Tianquan (Tim) Lian, professor of physical chemistry at Emory University, to lead an investigation of electrochemical processes underlying fuel-cell technology. The award comes through the DoD’s highly competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI. The program funds teams of investigators from more than one discipline to accelerate the research process.

“A deeper understanding of electrochemical processes is important in the quest for more efficient, renewable forms of energy,” Lian says. His lab develops sum-frequency generation spectroscopy to selectively probe reactions on the surface of an electrode. The technique can provide insights into the fundamental steps involved in energy generation, conversion and storage technologies — ranging from solar cells, to fuel cells and batteries.

Fuel cell electric vehicles use a fuel cell instead of a battery — or in combination with a battery — to generate electricity for power. While they have lower emissions and higher fuel-efficiency than internal-combustion engines, fuel cell vehicles are currently limited to lighter fuels, such as hydrogen.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research accepted the MURI proposal from Lian, principal investigator of the project, and his colleagues from five other universities, including Yale, Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. Together, the researchers encompass the disciplines of advanced spectroscopy, electrochemical mass spectroscopy and electrochemical theory to model, test and interpret reactions.

“Bringing together experimentalists and theorists with different backgrounds gives us the expertise to tackle more challenging problems,” Lian says.

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