How do you check the health of a battery? These days, most people have at least one battery with us at all times, in a phone, laptop or even watch. Applications for these and other electrochemical devices are growing: in the future, fuel cells could heat and power our homes, while advanced batteries could become standard for powering vehicles. To achieve these strides, we need electrochemical devices to give better performance, and sustain this for longer. Diagnostic techniques like those used in human healthcare – taking a pulse, measuring the subject’s temperature, and x-raying the structure – give the Electrochemical Innovation Lab at UCL Chemical Engineering vital clues to understanding their operation.

For example, measuring how a fuel cell changes dimension or ‘breathes’ during operation can show how water is transported inside the electrolyte; infrared thermal imaging can identify hot spots within cells where failure may occur; and X-ray imaging reveals how the microstructure of electrodes changes during battery charging.  See a video of this work in action here:

These new tools give researchers unique understanding of the working of electrochemical devices, allowing them to optimise operation and develop new designs which make use of cutting-edge materials. These insights have led to innovations such as the “Flexible Fuel Cell”, a new technology that uses cost-effective, lightweight printed circuit boards to construct the layers that make up a fuel cell stack.

Nano-scale X-ray imaging of fuel cell electrodes informs new materials engineering to make devices last longer, and novel experiments in ultra-fast flow visualisation enable the engineering of water electrolysers for more efficient hydrogen production.

These approaches enable researchers to visualise the “organs” of working devices, monitor their state of health and prolong their lifetime. This work is helping to shape the design of a new generation of electrochemical devices: coming soon to a phone, car, home or power plant near you!

Just one example of how research at UCL Chemical Engineering could change the world.

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