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The Search for Alternative Energy Sources

by YPU Admin on March 16, 2017, Comments. Tags: chemical engineering, energy, Fuel Cells, PhD, Research, STEM, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Romeo Gonzalez and I am a 1st year PhD student at the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Sciences. After graduating from my Bachelor degree, also in Chemical Engineering, from my home county, Mexico, I successfully applied for a scholarship from my Government to come and study here in Manchester. I started on a Masters degree called an MPhil. This is sometimes a PhD preliminary year where you research a specific field before starting a full PhD in the same research area and is the path I took to becoming a PhD student.


My PhD focuses on applying new materials, such as graphene and reduced graphene oxide, into fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices capable of generating electricity through a chemical reaction, making my speciality electrochemistry.

In Depth

Currently most of the devices we use in our daily lives require a power supply, from the kettle we use for our morning coffee to the bus we use to get to work or school. This demand of energy is increasing every single day and is one of the most worrying problems humanity is facing.

So far, the solution to this problem hasn’t been found, but, most people believe that the solution lies in the use of multiple types of alternative energy sources. One of those alternative sources are fuel cells, more specifically, PEM fuel cells (proton exchange membrane fuel cells). These are small devices that can generate electricity through a reaction that takes place in the heart of the fuel cell, the Membrane Electrode Assembly. This is comprised of two electrodes stuck together with only a thin membrane separating them. The chemical reactions split a fuel - such as hydrogen, methanol or formic acid - into protons and electrons, which releases the chemical energy trapped inside that goes on to form electricity and water, thus generating power at a high efficiency with a low impact to the environment.

They are similar to batteries in the sense that both are electrochemical devices. However, in the case of batteries, they contain a set amount of power storage within them, whilst fuel cells produce a constant flow of energy as "fuel" flows through it.


So, why are we not already using them? Well unfortunately, fuel cells face different kinds of problems that need to be solved before they become as commonly used as batteries. In the case of hydrogen or formic acid, storage and handling of the fuel is a major safety issue, whilst low power production is an issue facing methanol fuel cells. Another problem this technology is facing is the use of expensive materials as a catalyst (a material used to kick start the chemical reaction), without which the fuel cells would not function. This problem is being tackled by finding alternative materials to try to improve the performance of the device. I’m looking specifically at using graphene in a number of different varieties.

So, what’s Graphene? Graphene is a relatively newly discovered two-dimension material that is known to possess multiple qualities, such as being highly conductive, highly resistant, ultra-light, transparent and is the thinnest material possible that could improve our daily life devices, including fuel cells. The objective of my PhD is to explore the use of this material in formic acid fuel cells to improve its power generation and efficiency, making it an excellent alternative source of energy.

Going Further

If you'd like to know more about fuel cells, visit this page:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/fuelcells/basics.htm  

If you want to know what kind of research is being carried out into fuel cells, visit:

https://energy.gov/eere/hydrogen-fuel-cells-blog  

If you're keen to know more about Graphene, visit the University of Manchester, the home of Graphene: http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/  

Or if you want to know what you can do as a chemical engineer and how to become one, visit:

http://www.whynotchemeng.com/  

 

Recreating the conditions inside the sun

Introduction

Hello! My name is Asad and I’m a PhD student at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester. Within my PhD, I work in the relatively recent field of nuclear fusion. More specifically, I look at the effects of plasma damage and neutron irradiation (both known phenomenon that occur within nuclear fusion) on materials that could be used to build a potential fusion reactor.

A little bit about my background first. Before I embarked on my PhD, I completed a Master of Engineering (MEng) in Mechanical Engineering with a minor focus on Nuclear Engineering. I also did some part time study in mathematics and research projects within fluid mechanics. Of the latter, a noteworthy one is that I constructed a mathematical model of the acoustics of a banjo!


In Depth

Science has always intrigued mankind. Some of the foremost questions we have been obsessed with are the simple ones:

·  “Where did we come from?”

·  “Why are we here?”

·  “What do we do?”

No matter who you ask, you will realise that we still don’t really know the answers to these; whether we look for philosophical reasoning or scientific. We search high and low for answers. Our universe is at the centre of such research. And at the centre of our universe: the sun.

The sun can be considered a giant ball of energy. The manner in which this energy is generated is referred to as nuclear fusion. As the human species observed this, we felt the urge to exploit the process to aid our need for energy, in order to survive on a world where resources are rapidly depleting.

What exactly is nuclear fusion? The answer is a result of work done by pioneering scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, Pierre Curie and Marie Curie. We find that certain atoms of elements undergo interesting transitions. We have been able to exploit these, such as nuclear fission which is currently a dominant process to generate electricity. Within fission, we find that under the right conditions, some of the atoms will split and become smaller releasing energy in the process. Fusion is the opposite; some atoms combine and through the process release energy. It has been found that the energy released through fusion could potentially be more sustainable, cleaner, and less fraught with the risks associated with the energy generated through fission. 

Thus we are now engaged in a global technological race to be able to achieve the right conditions for fusion on earth. Thus far we have managed to recreate the conditions. However, we still haven’t managed to be able to maintain these for long enough, nor have we been able to extract power from it. We have some ideas on how to achieve both. One of the questions however is, do we have the materials to be able to do so?


This is where people like me come in. Thus far I have spoken about how this is a relatively new process mingled with a plethora of difficulties. Therefore, it will not be surprising when I say that we don’t exactly have the appropriate facilities to be able to entirely comprehend the extreme effects taking place. So how do we go about solving the problem? Some people try and use proxies, alternative approaches that in some way mimic certain effects we expect. Others try to use computational techniques and our understanding of physics to paint a picture. I’m involved in the latter. I use modelling and simulation to try and deduce what we expect. It isn’t as simple as pushing a button however. One needs to be aware of a lot of inter-related pieces of physics. Sometimes, we also find that we don’t have the computational power to actually be able to process all of these (surprising isn’t it given the progress in the field of IT).  Sometimes my job is therefore to see which processes are negligible. At other times, it is to check and draw conclusions from the results of my simulations. To name a few of the techniques I use; I use solvers for the neutron transport equation, binary collision approximation and molecular dynamics. The last considers how atoms are likely to behave. This generates some interesting perceptions of important chemical and atomic processes.

I’ll stop here. I’ll end on a note that the human race is currently engaged in very exciting things. But to see this realised; we need young, ambitious and creative minds that are keen to learn as well as try new things. 


Going Further

If you want any more information, please feel free to contact me at: asad.hussain@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk . 

To find out more about the chemical and atomic processes generated in molecular dynamics: http://lammps.sandia.gov/movies.html

A more comprehensive yet elementary guide on nuclear physics can be found at (http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/nuccon.html)

Here are also some web links pertinent to what I have written: 

Culham Center for Fusion Energy: http://www.ccfe.ac.uk/introduction.aspx

Nuclear Energy Agency: http://www.oecd-nea.org/workareas/

Fusion Center for Doctoral Training: http://www.york.ac.uk/fusion-cdt/