Director's Corner

Release Date: February 09, 2015

Breaking Boundaries: Advancing Energy Technology through Advanced Manufacturing

Advanced manufacturing breakthroughs have allowed NETL researchers to improve the efficiency of energy systems that will power the Nation’s homes, businesses, and industries. For example, 3-D printing is a remarkable step in the evolution of the way we build products. Rather than using expensive and cumbersome molds to create components, the same parts are now printed on a machine layer by layer, form-fitted for their exact function and use. Components are economically redesigned, modified and improved, eliminating the need to create expensive full-scale prototypes. Engineers design and create new geometries with new materials for more efficient configurations. The resulting products work better and open doors of efficiency and performance.

Traditional manufacturing converts raw materials into finished products for the commercial market. Advanced manufacturing uses innovative processes that are more efficient, integrated, and sophisticated, with the potential to deliver more economical products with superior performance. 3-D printing is just one example of advanced manufacturing innovation that can deliver on improved, or previously unimagined, products. Here at NETL, our energy researchers are applying advanced manufacturing techniques to bridge the gap between laboratory research and industrial production. Let me give you an example.

Dr. Shiwoo Lee uses NETL’s Sono-Tek spraycoater to apply electrocatalyst to a fuel cell cathode.

Dr. Shiwoo Lee uses NETL’s Sono-Tek spraycoater to apply electrocatalyst to a fuel cell cathode.

Consider the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama remarked that climate change poses a greater threat to future generations than any other challenge we currently face as a nation. He also observed that changing the way we produce energy is one approach to tackling this challenge. SOFCs are among the most efficient known technologies for converting chemical energy directly into electricity. When future fuel cell systems are integrated into the Nation’s power grid, they could enable greater use of renewable energy sources because these future SOFCs will be dynamically responsive; that is, they will respond to power fluctuations and balance intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar. But to realize this potential, SOFC technology needs to be made both more reliable and more affordable. Research at NETL addresses both of these goals, with a focus on increasing the lifetime of the fuel cell.

To that end, NETL researchers discovered that treating, or “infiltrating,” a SOFC cathode with a special catalyst can drastically improve the fuel cells’ function, so that they can offer a bigger energy bang for the buck.

That is where advanced manufacturing techniques enter the picture. In the early stages of this research effort, infiltrating cathodes involved applying the catalyst by hand to specific locations in each individual cell cathode—not very practical for large-scale commercial production. Using advanced manufacturing concepts, NETL engineers designed a process that uses a spray coating machine coupled with special computer software to mass produce infiltrated SOFCs possessing a precisely controlled electrode structure.

In this way, advanced manufacturing is enabling researchers, and soon industry, to cheaply and precisely control how much infiltrate is applied to achieve the desired performance. The result will be new fuel cells that will cost less, are more efficient, and more durable. And, advanced manufacturing—through the use of in-situ sensors and real-time diagnostics—could contribute to fuel cells being made more reliable, with each cell being produced precisely according to specifications.

The United States has long been a global leader in manufacturing, and that leadership stems from Americans’ spirit of industry and invention. Innovative approaches to how products are made helps position our manufacturing industry to create products with unimagined capabilities and functions. Advanced manufacturing will help industry and energy researchers alike stay at the forefront of new technologies. I’m pleased the energy researchers here at NETL can play a part in this exciting aspect of discovery that is shaping not only how we manufacture components and technologies, but also how we produce and use energy.

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.