Thomas A. Zawodzinski
Thomas Zawondzinski credits his twenty years in the fuel cell research area to accidental good fortune. He started researching fuel cells years before they were looked at as an alternative energy source and now he works on the forefront of improving fuel cell efficiency.
Currently, Zawodzinski and a group of researchers are working on improving a redox flow battery, or an intermediate battery-meets-fuel cell, that can take fluctuating power from the sun or wind and store it for later use.
Like most electrochemical devices, the redox flow battery resembles a sandwich of two electrodes made of carbon with a center electrolyte made of a Saran Wrap-like salt solution in polymer form that only conducts ions. As an active material for the battery, early work has focused on Vanadium redox batteries. Vanadium has a unique chemistry for such batteries that can be manipulated to produce energy as a battery and can be recharged easily. In just the last six months, Zawodzinski and a group of researchers have improved the performance of redox flow battery materials by a factor of ten.
His group figured out a way to lower the electrolyte resistance, which decreases the resistance to ion flow, thus creating a more efficient battery. Now that Zawodzinski has improved the “meat” of the sandwich, his team is also looking at the slices of “bread.” Among other things, Zawodzinski wants to maximize the contact between the carbon surface of the electrodes and Vanadium ions to create more active carbon electrodes. The advantage with carbon is that it’s inexpensive and works well in this application.
Beyond applications for a car engine, power station, and the electric power grid, the ‘sandwich structure’ of these devices can be used for glucose sensors, sensors for chemical warfare agents, fuel cells and converting biomass to energy. The flexible structure allows researchers to do many different things by using different chemicals to convert chemical energy into electrical energy or vice versa.