Engineer Receives Federal Funding to Find Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Fuel Cells

AMHERST, Mass. – Ashwin Ramasubramaniam, an engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a five-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to study electrocatalysts in fuel cells and to find ways to improve them.
The goal of this project, funded through the DOE’s Office of Science Early Career Research Program, is to develop and use computer models for designing and evaluating nanoscale platinum catalysts supported on graphene, a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 60,000 nanometers in diameter.
“In this case, there is accumulating evidence that a combination of tiny platinum nanoparticles, used as the catalyst, and flat sheets of graphene, used as support material, is very effective at catalyzing reactions in a fuel cell,” says Ramasubramaniam. “We know they work. They are robust. But nobody really knows why.”
To understand this process better, Ramasuramaniam will first study why this combination of materials works so well. Then he will try to determine the best possible size for the nanoparticles of platinum and the best possible surface texture of the graphene sheets.
“Once we know all that, we can suggest more efficient ways to set up those materials in the catalytic reaction process and, going one step further, begin to explore less costly materials to replace platinum,” he says.
Ramasubramaniam says widespread adoption of new energy technologies depends on the development of efficient and inexpensive catalysts. He hopes this work will unlock the reasons why some combinations of materials work and seek insights into how fundamental improvements can be made to the system.
“We’re theorists,” says Ramasubramaniam. “We aim to provide fundamental insights into why certain things work, and why certain things don’t work, and what combinations of factors might be expected to work better.”
So, in this case, the job is to suggest how fuel cell electrodes might work better; how they will be more efficient, more economical, and how they will perform better than they do now, he says.