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Columbia Business Monthly

Clemson researchers hope to use 3D printers and lasers to build an electrolyzer-powered future

Feb 04, 2019 11:43AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dustin Waters

A new experimental technique combining 3D printing and laser technology pioneered at Clemson University aims to revolutionize future clean energy production—and perhaps one day dramatically improve the performance of hybrid vehicles and smartphones. 

With $1.6 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the research team led by Jianhua “Joshua” Tong hopes to make hydrogen production easier and more effective. 

Currently, one promising method of manufacturing this brand of clean energy is the use of electrolyzers, which utilize electricity to split water into its basic components of oxygen and hydrogen to be stored for later use. According to Tong, this method poses a few benefits over traditional fuel sources.

“In this country and across the world, we’re trying to push renewable energy or we’d like to see sustainable clean energy. We’ll have to have energy from solar or even nuclear sources, something that’s sustainable,” says Tong, an associate professor at Clemson’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “You can produce electricity easily, but electricity’s transportation is consumable, meaning you will lose energy. But if you can work water and electricity into hydrogen, the hydrogen can be transported anywhere easily.”

Unfortunately, today’s electrolyzers can prove to be a bit cumbersome, ranging from “small, appliance-size equipment that is well-suited for small-scale distributed hydrogen production to large-scale, central production facilities that could be tied directly to renewable or other non-greenhouse-gas-emitting forms of electricity production,” according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

Also, with these devices requiring multiple ceramic layers—each of which must be heated or “sintered” at differing high temperatures—the manufacturing of electrolyzers can prove to be time-consuming and costly. All of these issues would be alleviated should Tong and his team find continued success with their new technique. 

“The problem is that each layer, each different ceramic, needs a different firing temperature or firing conditions. In our case at Clemson, based on the DOE’s support, we are working on a new technology. You can print a layer and then you fire it, and then you print another,” explains Tong. “You fire each layer, and it is fast compared to a furnace. It’s less than one minute compared to hours, at least.”

By using a 3D printer to produce each ceramic layer, which is then sintered using lasers, Tong expects that electrolyzers could be reduced in size from a matter of millimeters to around 200 microns in thickness per single fuel cell. This opens up a whole new world of applications for the implementation of highly compact electrolyzers.

“If we can lower the size, lower the weight to one-tenth, that is possible to put in a car. I have a hybrid car that can drive 495 miles on one fill,” says Tong. “I think based on the new technology, it’s possible to double that. So 1,000 miles with one fill, that’s possible in the near future, I think.”

In late 2017, Columbia’s The State newspaper reported that South Carolina drivers made up roughly 44,000 of the nation’s hybrid vehicle owners, with 460 of those being electric. According to a state-by-state report on fuel cells released by the Department of Energy in early 2018, South Carolina is also home to several commercial sites that rely on hydrogen to power day-to-day operations. The Sage Mill Industrial Park in Aiken houses a private hydrogen fueling station, which is used by Bridgestone-Firestone to power 43 forklifts. As with the Bridgestone-Firestone facility, BMW’s Spartanburg manufacturing plant utilizes Plug Power fuel cells to operate 275 forklifts, tuggers, and stackers. 

In addition to the possibility of smaller, easier-to-produce electrolyzers, Tong’s use of 3D printing technology would also do away with much of the expense of shipping this new breed of fuel cells across continents. Since product designs can be easily emailed to any facility across the world, all manufacturers would need is the 3D printing and laser equipment to begin producing their own fuel cells. 

“I imagine in the future, you will probably have a comprehensive factory, which means they can manufacture anything by request,” says Tong. “Maybe the factory can print a car or something. We could send the 3D design and they can print the electrolyzer in different scales based on their requests. I think in the future, we’ll do the manufacturing this way.”
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