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UMass engineer gets $750,000 for energy research

Ashwin Ramasubramaniam, a faculty member in the mechanical and industrial engineering department at UMass, is conducting computer experiments to determine how fuel cells’ electrodes might be made to work more efficiently and at a lower cost.

“We’re theorists,” Ramasubramaniam said. “We aim to provide fundamental insights into why certain things work ... and what combination of factors might be expected to work better.”

The key to sustainable alternative energy sources such as biofuels, hydrogen, synthetic hydrocarbons and fuel cells is the catalytic process that drives the energy conversion, according to a Department of Energy article about the research. Widespread use of new energy technologies depends on the development of efficient and inexpensive catalysts.

What researchers have found is that nanoscale composites made of platinum and graphene, a one-atom thick sheet of carbon atoms which is an exceptionally strong, superior conductor of heat and electricity, work best as electrocatalysts in methanol fuel cells and hydrogen fuel cells, Ramasubramaniam said in an email message.

A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 60,000 nanometers in diameter. Ramasubramaniam said not only do the graphene sheets make excellent anchors for the platinum clusters, which are between 10 and 100 atoms in size, they also make them work more efficiently than expected. What he wants to determine is why that is so, how the process can be improved and how to do it either with a cheaper metal or even smaller amounts of platinum.

“The immediate advantage to working with very small platinum clusters, as opposed to bulk material, is that one needs much less material to achieve the same about of surface area, which results in cost and weight savings,” he said.

Once he unravels the interaction between graphene and platinum via computer work, the results would then have to be tested in the laboratory, he said. “We have been working on this for about two years now and have some interesting preliminary results that are pretty much in line with our intuition going in,” he said. “The overall problem is a fairly complex one, though, and we still have a long way to go.”

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