Argonne National Lab Researchers Devise A Range of Innovative Materials Solutions

Argonne's Energy Technology Division (ET) provides innovative materials and engineering solutions to national energy challenges that range from energy production and conservation to transportation. Researchers also find creative ways to re-use and extend the value of their discoveries.

The division's innovation has been recognized in the past two years by three R&D 100 Awards, given annually by R&D Magazine to the world's “100 most technologically significant new products.”

Hydrogen transport membrane

ET's hydrogen transport membrane, one of the 2004 R&D 100 winners, is expected to advance the hydrogen economy by providing hydrogen for fuel cells to power vehicles and computers and even supply electricity to the nation's power grid.

The membrane may provide an economical and environmentally friendly way to produce hydrogen from carbon-based feedstocks.

Argonne's ceramic membrane provides pure hydrogen gas by selectively separating hydrogen from gas mixtures generated by fossil fuel-based processes. The membrane can withstand the high temperatures and pressures that occur during coal gasification and methane reforming.

The hydrogen transport membrane was developed by Argonne scientist Balu Balachandran and colleagues Stephen Dorris and Tae Lee, in collaboration with Gary J. Steigel, Richard Dunst and John Winslow at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh. The membrane was patented in 2003, and technology development is underway with industrial partners Eltron Research, Inc., and ITN Energy Systems, Inc.

Argonne's ceramic membrane was developed as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy through the National Energy Technology Laboratory's Gasification Technologies Program.

Spray-on structural cement

ET's other 2004 R&D 100 award was for Grancrete, a spray-on structural phosphate ceramic cement that may provide safe, inexpensive housing. Grancrete was developed by ET scientist Arun Wagh in collaboration with Jim Paul of Casa Grande International of Mechanicsville, Va.

The two have been working together since 1996, when Wagh and a colleague developed Ceramicrete, another R&D 100-award winning cement product for stabilizing radioactive and hazardous waste for long-term.

Grancrete is a magnesium-phosphate cement binder that hardens within hours when mixed with water. For low-cost housing, the powder can be mixed at a construction site with water and sand and sprayed onto polystyrene foam sheets in frames. Within two to four hours, Grancrete forms a rigid, long-lasting structural wall or ceiling that is permanently bonded to the panels.

These structures could provide long-lasting, easily maintained housing to a large segment of the world's population that could not previously afford adequate shelter. A Grancrete structure of approximately 800 square feet, for example, is estimated to cost $6,000 in labor and materials to build.

Nanocoatings can save energy, costs

In 2003, nanostructured carbide-derived carbon (CDC) technology for sliding and rotating equipment received an R&D 100 award. CDC is grown with graphite, diamond, amorphous carbon and carbon “nano-onions” -- small carbon structures with concentric rings, resembling an onion. These components vary from 2 to 10 nanometers in thickness (one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter).

Industrial partners are interested in using the coating to seal water pumps in automotive engines to prevent dry-run failure and extend the engine's lifetime. This coating may save billions of dollars and reduce energy consumption.

Because it is created with nano-layers, the coating bonds strongly to its substrates under severe loading or sliding conditions. CDC has exceptional friction and wear resistance in wet, dry and high-temperature environments.

The CDC technology was developed by ET's Ali Erdemir along with colleagues Michael J. McNallan of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Yury Gogotsi of the A. J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute, and students Sascha Weiz and Daniel Ersoy of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Their research was funded by the Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Industrial Technologies, Industrial Materials of the Future Program.

For more information on fuel cells, click here.

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