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Direct Alcohol Fuel Cell Technology

Due to the fast growth of global energy needs and quickly diminishing of fossil fuel resources, people are forced to seek reliable, high performance, cost-effective and environmentally-beneficial renewable energy sources.   Among different options, anion exchange membrane based direct alcohol fuel cells have recently attract enormous attention as a potential solution to alleviate the current energy issues, due to their affordable "cell" (non-precious metal cathode, non ion-exchange-membrane based porous separator, etc),  low cost "fuel" (crude glycerol, waste biomass streams), and reliable operation and long life-time of the "fuel cell".  

Dr. Li started his research in electrocatalysts (for both cathode oxygen reduction reaction and anode alcohol oxidation) and electrodes for direct alcohol fuel cells since his PhD study (1999-2003), when his research group was funded by both NSFC and SumSung Advanced Institute of Technology. In that time, some giant electronics companies (e.g. SumSung, Toshiba, NEC, Motorola) had made big investments into direct methanol fuel cell R&D to compete with Li-batteries for the emerging mobile /portable power sources market. His PhD team later won the 2014 Chinese State Natural Science Award (second place).

Selective Publications:

*Wenzhen Li, Changhai Liang, Weijiang Zhou, Jieshan Qiu, Zhenhua Zhou, Gongquan Sun, Qin Xin, Preparation and characterization of multi-walled carbon nanotube-supported platinum for cathode catalyst of direct methanol fuel cells, Journal of Physical Chemistry B, 2003, 107, 6292-6299. Full text PDF

* Weijiang Zhou, Zhenhua Zhou, Shuqin Song, Wenzhen Li, Gongquan Sun, Panagiotis Tsiakaras, Qin Xin, Pt based anode catalysts for direct ethanol fuel cells, Applied Catalysis B (environmental), 2003, 273-285. Full text PDF

*  Wenzhen Li, Weijiang Zhou, Huanqiao Li, Zhenhua Zhou, Bing Zhou, Gongquan Sun, Qin Xin, Nano-structured Pt-Fe/C as cathode catalyst in direct methanol fuel cell, Electrochimica Acta, 2004, 49, 1045-1055. Full text PDF

Dr. Li has over 20 year experiences of fundamental research and technology development in in direct liquid fuel cells.  His direct glycerol fuel cell technology breakthroughs are in the three aspects: fuel, membrane and catalyst. 

Affordable fuel: crude glycerol 


Our first strategy is to explore crude glycerol as a fuel for direct alcohol fuel cells, because crude glycerin is a biodiesel byproduct, which is just burned to generate thermal energy in lots of cases. We prepared surface dealloyed PtCo nanoparticles supported on carbon nanotube (SD-PtCo/CNT), and used it as anode catalyst for crude glycerol oxidation. SD-PtCo/CNT anode catalyst based AEMFC with a 0.5 mgPt cm-2 achieved peak power densities of 268.5 mW cm-2 (crude glycerol/O2) and 284.6 mW cm-2 (high purity glycerol/O2) at 80 °C and ambient pressure, which are close to the published result of direct high purity glycerol solid oxide fuel cell operated at high temperature of 800 °C (327 mW cm-2), and are higher than all other published performances of direct high purity glycerol microbial fuel cell and anion exchange membrane fuel cell.  This work successfully developed a high power direct alcohol fuel cells with a biorenewable and environmentally-friendly fuel, and pointed out future direction towards low cost, durable direct liquid fuel cells.

Selected publications:
Ji Qi, Le Xin, Zhiyong Zhang, Kai Sun, Haiying He, Fang Wang, David Chadderdon, Yang Qiu, Changhai Liang, Wenzhen Li*, Surface dealloyed Pt nanoparticles supported on carbon nanotubes: facile synthesis and promising applications for direct crude glycerol anion-exchange membrane fuel cell, Green Chemistry, 2013, 15, 1133-1137.  Full text pdf.

Inexpensive membrane: porous film as a separator

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Our next strategy is to replace very expensive anion exchange membrane by using polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) thin film (pore size: 0.22~1.0 um) as a separator. We can obtained a peak power density of 217 mW/cm2 at 80C, about 22% lower than a direct glycerol fuel cell with a state-of-the-art AEM. 

Selected publications:    

Neeva Benipal, Ji Qi, Jacob C. Gentile, Wenzhen Li, Direct Glycerol Fuel Cell with Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) Thin Film Separator, Renewable Energy,  2017, 105, 647–655. DOI: 10.1016/j.renene.2016.12.028

Lost Cost Catalyst: metal -free N-S doped mesoporous carbon


Our last strategy is to seek for low cost catalyst for our fuel cells. We developed a nitrogen and sulfur doped mesoporous N-S-CMK-3, with uniform mesopores and extra macropores, which can lead to good oxygen diffusion in a fuel cell configuration. We obtained 88% single fuel cell peak power density of a direct ethanol fuel cell (DEFC) as compared with a Pt/C based DEFC, but showed much better durability. We attributed the high ORR activity of N-S-CMK-3 to the synergistic effect between graphitic-N and S (the C-S-C structure). This work indicating the mesoporous N-S-CMK-3 can serve as an efficient cathode catalyst for alkaline membrane fuel cells, including direct glycerol fuel cells. 

Selected publications:    

Yang Qiu, Jiajie Huo, Fan Jia, Brent. H. Shanks, Wenzhen Li, N- and S- Doped Mesoporous Carbon as Metal-Free Cathode Catalysts for Direct Biorenewable Alcohol Fuel Cells, Journal of Materials Chemistry, A, 2016, 4, 83-95.  DOI: 10.1039/C5TA060.

Sponsors: It is partly supported by NSF-CBET 1501124

In addition, this fuel cell technology can directly use biorenewable feedstock (such as pyrolysis streams without further purification) as fuel to generate electricity, it may find applications in biowaste treatment and environmental protection.

Selected Publication:

Neeva Benipal , Ji Qi , Patrick A. Johnston , Jacob C. Gentile, Robert C. Brown , Wenzhen Li, Direct Fast Pyrolysis Bio-oil Fuel Cell, Fuel, 2016, 185, 85–93. DOI: 10.1016/j.fuel.2016.07.091

Our low cost high performance direct liquid fuel cell technology has been issued a US pantent:

Fuel-cell system and method of generating energy from crude fuel (US20170263945A1)

Inventors: Wenzhen Li, Neeva Benipal, Ji Qi and Yang Qiu 

If you are interested in our direct liquid fuel cell or other electrochemical energy technologies (e.g. electrocatalyst synthesis and electrochemical flow cell design and tests), or need relevant technical service, please feel free to contact Dr. Li (515-412-4582,, or ISU technology office (OIPTT). 

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