Scientist looks to bridge gap between current, future energy tech

Energy Department awarded professor over $600,000 for hybrid fuel cell development

BREANNE SEARING, Evergreen reporter

A WSU researcher received hundreds of thousands of dollars to work on a fuel cell design that could fill the gap between the energy technology of today and the future.

The Department of Energy awarded Dustin McLarty, a mechanical and materials engineering assistant professor, $678,000 to research hybrid fuel cells as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, project.

McLarty defined his power system design as a “breaching technology.” He said it could work with natural gas today — while it is still abundant — or synthetic fuels in the future. He said just about any fuel would work once the temperatures at which the system operates are considered.

“High-temperature fuel cells have operated on biogases, landfill gases, gases from wastewater treatment facilities, regular old natural gases,” McLarty said, “just about anything that can be a fuel can be used by this.”

McLarty is working to improve hybrid power systems by using solid oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs. His design uses a very thin ceramic tile with pressurized fuel on one side and air on the other. The gases mix, triggering a reaction that releases energy in the form of heat and electricity.

Scientists can control where electrons go in the fuel cell, enabling them to convert more energy into electricity and less into heat. This is an important aspect because heat released from the reaction cannot power technology.

McLarty’s new system design added what is called an oxygen membrane, separating the gas turbine from the fuel cell.

“This allows for the turbine to power up and down independently of the fuel cell powering up and down,” McLarty said.

McLarty said the design has a lot of potential for development.

“ARPA-E is very focused on the commercialization pathway,” McLarty said, “and with success, it would be something the university could license out or spin out as a startup company through the university incubator.”