Recognizing the importance of this emerging technology, Singapore's Nanyang Technological University  (NTU) is pursuing fuel cell research aggressively. It has set its sights on establishing Singapore as a regional center for fuel cell technology through this multidisciplinary strategic research program.
The attractiveness of the fuel cell lies in its potential for wide applications, greater energy efficiency, environment-friendly properties, and use of a renewable fuel, hydrogen. A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. The advantage lies in its ability to convert chemical energy into electrical energy without the need for combustion. As an energy storage device, a fuel cell resembles a battery, but a fuel cell does not "run down" as it generates electricity.
Explaining the rationale for NTU's interest, Associate Professor Jiang San-Ping, deputy director of the fuel cell strategic research program, touched on the serious problems arising from ever increasing power consumption and environmental degradation. "Today," said Jiang, "for every 4 gallons of oil we consume, only 1 gallon is discovered." Hence the worldwide interest in alternative energy, including fuel cells.
Jiang continued: "Fuel cells offer the promise of higher efficiency in energy conversion and electric power generation for many different applications. These range from handheld devices to vehicles and ships and stationary power generation."
The other incentive for fuel cell research is the "substantially reduced environmental impacts if the long-term energy scenario based on renewable energy source--hydrogen--can be realized", he added.
The university started this strategic research program about 5 years ago to address fundamental issues of fuel-cell-related science and technology and to explore their practical applications.
NTU's fundamental fuel cell research will promote the development of improved, next-generation fuel cells, including studies on materials, cell configurations, and electrochemical, heat, and mass transfer processes.
The practical track involves research related to the cost-effective deployment of fuel cell systems, including technology testing, proving, and demonstration; system modeling and optimization; and techno-economic and feasibility studies on fuel cell applications. Within this track, research is also being directed at important technologies related to the practical use of fuel cells, including reforming conventional and alternative fuels.
Several types of fuel cells are classified by the type of electrolyte used in them. NTU's research focuses on two types of fuel cells: solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) and proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs).
In view of the liberalization of the power and energy industry, there is great potential for the SOFC to replace conventional combustion power plants. The SOFC has the highest efficiencies of all fuel cells and, potentially, a long life expectancy. Made entirely from solid-state materials, it uses ion-conducting oxide ceramic as the electrolyte instead of a liquid electrolyte, which is known to be corrosive.
SOFCs operate at high temperatures, up to 1000°C. This has advantages and disadvantages. The steam produced can be channeled to drive turbines and generate more electricity. But the high temperature also raises reliability issues. NTU is working to develop the next- generation SOFC designed to operate at lower temperatures, around 600°C.
The university is also working to develop high-performance SOFC technologies. Said Jiang: "This involves the development of high ionic conducting electrolyte membranes, high-performance electrode materials, low-cost fabrication methods, stacking technology, and detailed evaluation of various materials' performance.
In terms of practical applications, NTU's research seeks to develop SOFCs that will meet performance objectives such as power density, stability, cycling ability, shut-down and start-up times, fuel requirements, and ease-of-maintenance.
Said Jiang: "SOFC is basically an area combined of materials science, electrochemistry, and engineering. Thus common materials processing and fabrication and electrochemical testing facilities are all used in the project."
Three schools at NTU are involved in this leading-edge research program, namely, its Schools of Mechanical and Production Engineering, Materials Engineering, and Electrical and Electronics Engineering.