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Office of the Vice President for Research

USC researchers earn $3.2 million to fund development of innovative fuel cell and battery

At the recent New York Energy Week, the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, Acting Director Cheryl Martin announced $33 million in new funding for 13 projects aimed at developing transformational fuel-cell technologies, including $3.2 million for a project at the University of South Carolina. Through this award, USC mechanical engineering professor Kevin Huang and his co-investigators Ralph Edward White and Jason Hattrick-Simpers, both professors of chemical engineering, have earned a unique opportunity to change the U.S. energy landscape. USC's research team, working with collaborators from the University of Texas at Austin, Clemson University, the University of Maryland and Acumentrics Corporation, will use their ARPA-E funds to develop a ceramic-based fuel cell that will efficiently generate, distribute and store electrical power.

The project was funded through a new ARPA-E program called Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems (REBELS), which empowers revolutionary thinkers like Huang and his teammates to come up with new ways to generate and distribute energy through America's evolving power grid using electrochemical fuel-cell technology that converts chemical energy directly into electrical energy. Electrochemical-based distributed power-generation systems have the potential to trim energy costs, lower CO2 emissions, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, stabilize the power grid, complement expanding renewable-energy sources and fundamentally change the way electricity is generated and distributed in the United States.

It is exciting to learn that USC is one of only 13 institutions nationally selected by ARPA-E for funding in fuel-cell technology research. —Prakash Nagarkatti

Prakash Nagarkatti, USC's Vice President for Research, noted the importance of this award, and the research it funds. "It is exciting to learn that USC is one of only 13 institutions nationally selected by ARPA-E for funding in fuel-cell technology research. The work Dr. Kevin Huang and his collaborators are undertaking at USC will have a tremendous impact on electrical energy generation and push high-efficiency energy storage technology forward."

Through the University of South Carolina REBELS project, Huang, White, Hattrick-Simpers and their collaborators will create an intermediate-temperature fuel cell that functions a bit like a battery, generating and distributing electrical energy when needed, and storing energy for later use when demand for power is low. The device will incorporate a newly discovered ceramic electrolyte that is low in cost and high in conductivity with nanostructured electrodes that will enable it to generate and store electricity at temperatures lower than 500˚C. The fuel cell's unique design includes an iron-based chemical bed that will store electrical energy, enabling it to respond rapidly when power demand fluctuates.

Huang and his team are looking forward to making an impact. "The project involves the development of an innovative multifunctional fuel cell energy system that is capable of generating electricity, producing value-added chemicals and storing electricity with high efficiency and low carbon emissions," Huang says. "It addresses the growing critical need for advanced low-carbon energy conversion technology of our future. We are very excited about this great opportunity."

ARPA-E has good reason to support projects like Huang's and the 12 other REBELS projects it funded this summer. Distributed-generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities that are currently commonplace. While centralized power-generation systems have an excellent economy of scale, they often require long transmission distances between supply and distribution points, leading to efficiency losses, and can pose challenges to integrating energy from renewable energy sources. Funding cutting-edge research projects like these will help America discover new, less centralized and more flexible ways of pumping energy into the grid, and even storing it for later use, keeping us on the prosperous forefront of energy technology and contributing to improved quality of life here, and beyond our borders.