New materials for intermediate-temperature solid oxide fuel cells to be powered by carbon- and sulfur-containing fuels
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Unlike polymer electrolyte fuel cells, solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) have the potential to use a wide variety of fuels, including hydrocarbons and gasified coal or different types of ample carbonaceous solids. However, the conventional anode for an SOFC, a composite consisting of nickel and yttria-stabilized-zirconia (YSZ), is highly susceptible to carbon buildup (coking) and deactivation (poisoning) by contaminants commonly encountered in readily available fuels. Further, the low ionic conductivity of the electrolyte and the poor performance of the cathode at lower temperatures require SOFCs to operate at high temperatures (>800°C), thereby increasing costs and reduce system operation life. Thus, in order to make SOFCs fully fuel-flexible, cost-effective power systems, the issues of anode tolerance to coking and sulfur poisoning as well as the slow ionic conduction in the electrolyte and the sluggish kinetics at the cathode need to be addressed. In this thesis, a novel electrolyte was shown to have the highest ionic conductivity below 750°C of all known electrolyte materials for SOFCs applications, which allowed for fabrication of a thin-electrolyte cell with high power output at lower temperatures. The detailed electrochemical analyses of BZCYYb conductor revealed that the conductivities were sensitive to doping and partial pressure of oxygen, hydrogen, and water. When used in combination with Ni as a composite anode (Ni-BZCYYb), it was shown to provide excellent tolerance to coking and sulfur poisoning. Extensive investigations on surfaces of BZCYYb and Ni by Raman Spectroscopy and Scanning Auger Nanoprobe disclosed that its unique ability appears linked to the mixed conductor's enhanced catalytic activity for sulfur oxidation and hydrocarbon cracking/reforming, as well as enhanced multilayer water adsorption capability. In addition, the nanostructured oxide layers on Ni from dispersion of BZCYYb traces during high-temperature calcinations may effectively suppress the formation of carbon from dehydrogenation. Based on the fundamental understanding on surface properties, a new and simple modification strategy was developed to hinder the carbon-induced deactivation of the state-of-the-art Ni-YSZ anode. Compared to the complex Ni-BZCYYb anode, this modified Ni-YSZ anode could be readily adopted in the latest fuel cell systems based on YSZ electrolyte. The much-improved power output and tolerance to coking of the modified Ni-YSZ anode were attributed to the nanostructured BaO/Ni interfaces observed by synchrotron-based X-ray and advanced electron microscopy, which readily adsorbed water and facilitated water-mediated carbon removal reactions. Density functional theory (DFT) calculations predicted that the dissociated OH from H₂O on BaO reacted with C on Ni near the BaO/Ni interface to produce CO and H species, which were then electrochemically oxidized at the triple-phase boundaries of the anode. Also, some new insights into the sulfur poisoning behavior of the Ni-YSZ anode have been revealed. The so-called "second-stage poisoning" commonly reported in the literatures can be avoided by using a new sealant, indicating that this poisoning is unlikely the inherent electrochemical behavior of a Ni-YSZ anode but associated with other complications. Furthermore, a new composite cathode with simultaneous transport of proton, oxygen vacancies and electronic defects was developed for low-temperature SOFCs based on oxide proton conductors. Compared to the conventional oxygen ion-electron conducting cathode, this cathode is very active for oxygen reduction, extending the electrochemically active sites and significantly reducing the cathodic polarization resistance. Towards the end, these findings have great potential to dramatically improve the economical competitiveness and commercial viability of SOFCs that are driven by cost-effective and renewable fuels.