Building green tech one metallic layer at a time

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Building green tech one metallic layer at a time

Researchers partner with industry to advance innovation in decarbonization

By Faculty of Engineering

In the quest to reach zero emissions by 2050, Waterloo engineering researcher and WIN member Dr. Xianguo Li and Dr. Samaneh Shahgaldi from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) are working with industry partners to develop more efficient, durable, cost-effective fuel cells.  

Hydrogen is a promising solution for decarbonizing various sectors, transportation in particular, but hydrogen-based fuel systems rely heavily on the technology of metallic bipolar plates – a technology the Waterloo and UQTR researchers, along with mining company, Niobay Metals, are refining with support from Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that empowers Canadian innovation by making investing in new knowledge easier through access to top researchers, flexible project plans, and co-investments in talent.  

"One sector that is really difficult to decarbonize is transport," said Li, leader of the University of Waterloo’s Fuel Cell and Green Energy Laboratory and editor-in-chief for the International Journal of Green Energy. “So, we are investigating metallic materials that have high mechanical strength, high thermal conductivity, and can be made much, much thinner than traditional materials.”  

The vital ingredient needed to make these materials is niobium, a naturally occurring grey crystalline metal that is classified as a technology-critical element with stability that makes it useful for rocket and jet engines.  

The teams’ research, supported by the Mitacs Accelerate program, aims at improving the efficiency of the polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (or PEMFC), which is a key technology for climate change mitigation. To reach their potential, however, these power systems must become smaller and lighter.  

Until now, the size and weight of bipolar plates within PEMFCs were a bottleneck in fuel cell improvement, but the research teams are developing next-generation lightweight plates coated in a thin layer of niobium.  

Dr. Xianguo Li with research teamDr. Xianguo Li with members of his research team.

Thanks to the physical and chemical properties of niobium, it has strong resistance to corrosion and oxidation, great malleability, and high electrical and thermal conductivity. The team’s findings suggest that carbon-based coatings using niobium are promising for large-scale commercial applications. 

Shahgaldi holds the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells and is the CO-PI on the project: “Dr. Li has a mechanical engineering background, and we have chemistry and chemical engineering backgrounds, so it’s a multidisciplinary group that wants to build something good.” By partnering with Niobay Metals, she added, they are ensuring made-in-Canada ideas, materials and technologies will benefit Canada’s economy and workforce, as well as the climate.  

The CEO of Niobay Metals, Jean-Sebastien David, said the researchers’ findings demonstrate the power of niobium to improve green technologies, and underline the importance of mining these technology-critical elements here in Canada.  

“Canada can remain at the leading edge of clean technology by committing to this kind of research and exploration,” said David. “A zero-carbon future requires brilliant research today, like that being done by our scientific partners at the University of Waterloo and University of Quebec.”  

The research program supported by Mitacs includes the design, optimization, methods of manufacturing, surface characterization, testing and validation of the bipolar plates.  

John Hepburn, CEO of Mitacs, said the team’s research “highlights the impact of collaboration between academic research and industry. Mitacs is proud to support such initiatives that contribute to Canada's leadership in emerging technology areas like hydrogen energy." 

Interested in research studies at the University of Waterloo? Discover more about our Master of Applied Science (MASc) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Engineering degrees. 

Feature image: Dr. Xianguo Li (seated, centre) with members of his research team in the lab. Photo by Martin Schwalbe.