Researchers at Clemson University are working on a new 3D printing technique involving rapid laser processing to create "protonic ceramic electrolyzer stacks" that convert electricity to hydrogen as a way of storing energy.
The electrolyzers could be used as a fuel source in cars or to store energy generated from solar and wind power. The new laser 3D printing technique would reduce the cost and time of manufacturing highly compacted electrolyzers.
Jianhua "Joshua" Tong, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, is leading the research with $1.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The new technique could not only cut the cost of hydrogen production in half but also decrease device size one order of magnitude. "Our success will mean we can provide sustainable, clean energy," Tong said. "That is the fantastic part. We are taking 3D printing to the next level."In Tong's project, one of the big challenges is to figure out how to cost-effectively print with ceramics. When made conventionally, ceramics have to be sintered in a furnace at high temperatures, often for several hours. In addition, different types of ceramics need to be sintered at different temperatures.
Furthermore, an electrolyzer requires four different types of ceramics, making the sintering a challenge. However, the researchers have developed a 3D printer that puts down a layer of ceramic, and a laser sinters it at the same time, eliminating the need for the furnace. The technique would allow the user to 3D print an electrolyzer made out of four different types of ceramics without using a furnace. It would be similar to making a cake with many layers and having a different flavor for each layer.
The technique could be applied to 3D printing other types of ceramic products, including batteries and solar cells, or high-density batteries that allow smartphones to maintain a charge for days at a time. In addition, the technique could open 3D printing to new products and all the advantages that come with it. "For example, a design for a car's fuel-cell stack could be emailed to a factory thousands of miles away, and it could be printed within hours rather than waiting for days for delivery," Tong said.
Rajendra Bordia, chair of the department, said the research enhances Clemson's efforts to help create more sustainable ways of converting energy.
"The Department of Materials Science and Engineering is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in using electrolysis to create energy for transportation from renewable sources," he said. "The team working on this project represents world class expertise in relevant areas, including ceramic materials and devices for energy conversion, laser processing, additive manufacturing and ceramic processing."