Near zero-emission energy systems, such as fuel cells, electrolyzers, and batteries hold immense promise for production and storage of clean and renewable energy, but challenges such as high cost, unsatisfactory efficiency, and low durability remain. This NSF CAREER project presents a comprehensive integrated research and education program that focuses on application of cutting-edge microscopy methods to understand degradation processes in fuel cell electrodes, applicable to other systems, such as batteries and electrolyzers. The project will use novel microscopy characterization and quantification methods to close the gap in understanding degradation mechanisms that occur within the membrane electrode assembly including the electrocatalyst, the catalyst support, and the electrolyte membrane. The knowledge generated in this project will contribute towards the rational design of electrodes with greater durability through the understanding of key factors that contribute to electrode degradation. The educational objective of the project is to attract younger diverse generations to both STEM and clean energy. The investigator will harness the motivation of the next generation to improve prospects for clean energy by integrating the research and educational aspects of the project with the use of virtual reality tools. The investigator plans to develop instructive and stimulating “I loVR Nano” and “I loVR Clean Energy” virtual reality modules, where materials science, clean energy, and microscopy topics will be presented. The investigator has also planned an “Engineering Entrepreneurs—Under the Microscope” program to offer undergraduate and graduate engineering students entrepreneurship and research training to prepare them as future leaders in the clean energy and other sectors.

This fundamental engineering science research project will use sophisticated microscopy characterization and quantification methods to close the knowledge gap in understanding of the following scientific questions: (1) What (undiscovered) mechanisms/changes on the nano- and micro-level occur during electrode degradation and how do these changes affect performance? (2) Can the effect of each degradation mechanism be distinguished and linked to individual components in the electrodes? (3) How do the properties of electrode components and their distribution on a nano- and micro-scale affect degradation? The project has the potential to make a significant contribution to science by establishing novel approaches for testing and 2D/3D microscopy characterization of zero-emission electrochemical systems, and hence provide solutions for improving performance and durability. The technical objectives of this project are: 1) Develop and verify a method to directly observe the degradation processes in actual and model electrochemical systems on a nanometer scale in a novel Micro EChem Cell for Identical Location (MECC-IL); 2) Establish a suite of advanced characterization approaches involving 2D/3D multi-scale imaging and spectroscopy, and parameter quantification to understand degradation mechanisms on a nano- and micro-scale. Define a unique, comprehensive matrix of structural and compositional parameters to correlate to MECC-IL and ex-situ testing; 3) Establish multi-variate correlations between the derived matrix of parameters and the MECC-IL validated with ex-situ degradation testing. The project will yield new fundamental knowledge of degradation mechanisms for electrochemical systems through convergence of correlations and modeling.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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University of Connecticut
United States
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