‘Research is my cup of tea’

With global oil reserves depleting, and climate change threatening, TU Delft PhD researcher Ming Liu, from China, is researching fuel cells, a technology offering unique potential for clean, efficient power transfer and high fuel to electricity efficiency.

What motivated you to pursue a PhD in fuel cell technology?

“I wanted to widen my knowledge in this field, a field that has recently generated great interest in the energy community. The technology is quite new, so I wanted to learn more about it and also be part of this new technology from the start. Furthermore, research in the field of fuel cells based on biomass gasification for sustainable power generation is new in China, so I’d like to use the knowledge gathered when I get back home.”

What exactly is a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell, or SOFC?

“There’s a global need to achieve efficient energy conversion with minimal environmental impact. SOFC is an electrochemical device that converts the chemical energy of the fuels directly into electricity, without the combustion stage, thus achieving high efficiency. You can think of an SOFC as a kind of battery, where as long as you supply fuel you get electricity. Compared to conventional power generators, like steam turbines, SOFC efficiency is 50 to 60% higher.”

Why is there interest in SOFC research?

“Fossil fuels for power generation have a low electrical efficiency, beside, it emit carbon dioxide which cause global warming. Power plant based SOFC and biomass gasification has higher system efficiency as well as no extra carbon dioxide emission, as biomass is practically carbon neutral. Since biomass is renewable when integrated with SOFC, it’s a pioneering solution for a sustainable energy future.”

With plenty of fossil reserves still remaining, is this a viable technology for the near future?

“It’s true that oil and coal reserves won’t run out anytime soon, but one must consider the climate change aspect, too. In a world whose population reached 7 billion, energy demands are continuously increasing. Generating energy by renewable means and converting it as efficiently as possible is the need of the hour. Also, generation and conversion must be done without polluting the environment. Fuel cells are non-polluting devices, producing harmless water as a by-product if hydrogen is fed as fuel. Hence, I’d definitely say this technology has a promising future.”

What are the real world applications for your research?

“It’s popular in developed countries, in Europe as well as the USA, where demonstrated power plants based on SOFC and biomass gasification are running. However, given some technical barriers, such as high syngas quality, tolerable SOFC materials must still be improved. SOFCs are currently making inroads into stationary applications that require power. For example, telecom companies can’t afford to have power cuts and need back up power. Having huge banks of batteries is one option, but it’s expensive, and it isn’t scalable and efficient. Instead, an SOFC system would generate power as long as fuel is supplied to it.”

Is industry collaborating for your research?

“This project is funded by an energy industry from Brazil. However, due to the economic availability and durability of SOFCs, it’ll take a few decades to commericalize such a system.”

Why did you choose TU Delft?

“I had two offers to do my research: TU Delft and a university in Australia. I chose the former because Delft’s research programs are well-known throughout the world and the quality top-notch. My professor at my home university also had some affiliation with TU Delft and strongly recommended I come here.”

How would you describe you research experience at TU Delft thus far?

“Honestly, I’ve loved it. Research is my cup of tea, and that’s what I like doing, so I’m 100% into it. It’s been happy three years here but also tough, because doing a PhD is no joke: one must spend considerable amounts of time on finding out new things and designing new solutions. After all, we researchers are here to solve some of many problems facing the world.”

Any advice for aspiring young researchers?

“First, they need to know themselves; they must ask themselves which topic they’re interested in and then plunge into it with full enthusiasm. I’d tell budding researchers to do what they like and not what they’re offered, because only then will their research be fruitful.”

What are your future plans?

“I can’t say exactly, but I’m very much interested in doing a postdoc after completing my PhD. I’d like to continue in this exciting area of fuel cells for my postdoc, either at TU Delft or elsewhere. That said, if offered an exciting job in industry back home, I’d definitely go back.” 

“A methanol fuel cell is typically twice as big, twice as expensive and twice as light as a standard lithium-ion battery,” says Bas Flipsen (MSc), who is currently putting the finishing touches on his PhD thesis cover at the faculty of
Industrial Design Engineering. He did not make a working prototype of an alcohol-powered MP3 player, however, as he thought it would be little too challenging now that he knew exactly what the thing would look like.
The largest components are the fuel tank, the fuel pump and the battery needed to buffer the power. Fuel cells like the DMFC (Direct Methanol Fuel Cell) provide little power over longer periods of time, so a (smaller) battery is needed to supply the peak power. The fuel cell will recharge the battery. The fuel cell itself occupies only 6 percent of the available space, but it’s the most expensive component (typical costing hundreds of euros).

The alcohol-powered MP3 player is merely an exercise for Flipsen. He first built up a database with the available components, and then classified all possible power sources according to their power per weight and per volume. A computer algorithm he developed chooses the most optimal parts from the set and packs the components in the smallest possible volume.
Flipsen’s numerical approach is rather unique at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, he noticed. As an aeronautical engineer (MSc in 1997), he thought of designing as calculating and optimising volume and weight. During his second Master’s degree in Advanced Industrial Design Engineering, he discovered that industrial designers mainly valued aesthetics and consumer wants. Still, aesthetics and calculation are not mutually exclusive. “Computer-optimised packaging supports designers in making aesthetic choices,” Flipsen concludes.

S.J.F. Flipsen, ‘Metrics based study on the feasibility of Direct Methanol Fuel cell systems employed in portable electronic during the conceptual design phase’, 14 December 2010, PhD supervisors Prof. Han Brezet and Prof. Christos Spitas.

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