COSAM » News » Articles » 2018 » August » COSAM Physics and Chemistry Faculty Awarded $530,000 National Science Foundation Grant to Research Oxide Materials Relevant to Fuel Cell Technology

COSAM Physics and Chemistry Faculty Awarded $530,000 National Science Foundation Grant to Research Oxide Materials Relevant to Fuel Cell Technology

Published: 08/07/2018

By: Maria Gebhardt

Dr. Ryan Comes and Dr. Byron Farnum began working at Auburn University in the fall of 2016 as assistant professors in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM).  They both gave presentations at an energy research cluster mini-symposium that not only opened doors to future collaboration, but an interdisciplinary partnership uniting their specific areas of expertise.

Dr. Comes focused on nanocomposites including thin-film crystal growth during his post-doctoral studies and Dr. Farnum based his work on the electrochemistry of metal oxides.  Both assistant professors saw the potential to combine their knowledge and conduct forward-thinking research that could one day directly impact the development of fuel cells. 

That potential has now paid off in the form of a grant, Exploration of Electronic and Catalytic Behavior in Epitaxial Complex Oxide Films and Nanocomposites, from the Solid State and Materials Chemistry program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with additional support from NSF EPSCoR that awarded more than a half-million dollars for interdisciplinary research with a focus on the practical applications of reactions relevant to fuel cell technology. This three-year project will explore the physical and chemical behaviors of epitaxial spinel and perovskite oxide thin-films, with a focus on integrating them into nanocomposites.  These building blocks will then serve as the catalysts for the oxygen evolution and reduction reactions that drive fuel cells. 

“The goal of this research is to find the catalytic efficiencies in two dissimilar materials that match or exceed the results of materials such as platinum that are traditionally used with a significantly lower price point,” explains Comes.

Dr. Comes and his team in the Physics department will synthesize and examine the properties of the catalyst materials in the Films, Interfaces and Nanostructures of Oxides (FINO) Lab located in the university’s Leach Science Center.  Unique to this project, they will use a newly established Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) system to control each element of thin-film growth and the composites that are created from abundant metals.

Dr. Farnum and his team in Chemistry will analyze the electrochemical reactivity of these films towards oxygen evolution and reduction reactions, unearthing the specific reasons for catalytic behavior that can be used to develop better materials in the future in the Farnum Lab.

“The electrochemistry will show if a particular metal oxide material or nanocomposite is catalytically active, then further characterization of the elemental structure can help us understand why it was catalytically active” says Dr. Farnum.

Additionally, local students will benefit from this project. The 2019 Auburn University Summer Science Institute will include a component teaching high school students about the oxygen evolution and reduction processes necessary for fuel cell technology. This outreach component will provide support for local students to learn about research that is relevant and applicable to future careers in STEM. 

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