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October 21, 2015

A student from the McCormick School of Engineering, part of Northwestern University, has been conducting research into new fuel cell fabrication techniques. Nick Geisendorfer, currently in his senior year, has employed 3D printing technology in an attempt to make the solid oxide fuel cell more efficient and marketable.

“Not many people are really researching this or trying to fabricate fuel cells this way,” the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior said, regarding his research into solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology. SOFC produces electricity from the electrochemical oxidation of fuel without burning.

Ramille Shah, faculty member of McCormick and the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has acted as Geisendorfer’s mentor during his research. The esteemed scientist, who was once named one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 under 40,” leads the Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Lab, in which 3D printing techniques are used for the advancement of regenerative medicine. The lab also produces unique functional 3D inks used for energy and advanced structural applications. “It’s more of an art than people realize,” the scientist said. “You can’t just press go and expect the 3D printer to create exactly what you want. Nick has put in a lot of time and really perfected the 3D printing process.”

Geisendorger has also collaborated with McCormick professor Scott Barnett, whose lab at Northwestern specialises in research for improving fuel cell performance.

“I was initially hesitant to get involved in research,” admitted the student. “But someone told me, ‘No one expects undergrads doing research to find answers. They only expect you to have questions.’ That lit a light bulb inside of me. ‘I have questions—I can ask a lot of questions.’”

After overcoming his initial hesitation, Geisendorfer became solely concerned with how he might powerreal light bulbs and such, using SOFCs. “An SOFC is similar to a battery,” he explained. “The main difference between them is that SOFCs are made up of completely solid materials, where batteries generally contain liquid. Another key difference is that batteries have an exhaustible capacity, while SOFCs will generate electricity as long as they are supplied with fuel. Fuel cells in general are very efficient—much more so than fossil combustion.”

“SOFCs are mostly intended for stationary power,” continued Geisendorfer. “They’re different than the fuel cells you might put in a car. It could be the sort of thing where you buy a stack and put it in your basement to power your house, but it’s mostly thought of as a large-scale energy solution.”

A key part of Geisendorfer’s research has been his work with 3D printing technology. The student has found that 3D printers permit a great deal of experimentation. “SOFCs have existed for a while, but no one has come up with a super good way to make them into complex designs,” he explained. “We are looking at how we can either 3D print a whole cell or incorporate 3D printed fuel cell parts into the work being done by Professor Barnett’s lab.”

The research undertaken alongside respected scientists and exciting 3D printing technology has had a profound effect upon the young scholar. “Solving research problems is very different from solving homework problems,” he mused. “I’ve found that having a place to apply materials science knowledge has been profoundly impactful and has changed how I approach my studies. I approach everything with a different mindset now. Knowing that I like research, and knowing I want to continue to do it after this, is a really positive reinforcement for a desire to go to graduate school.” We hope Nick puts his newfound skills and experience to use, and is able to develop further effective energy solutions, 3D printed or otherwise.

 

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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