Beckman Fellow 2007-08

Paul J. A. Kenis

Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering


Because of their high energy densities and low noise levels, fuel cells hold promise for becoming the power source of choice for a wide range of off-the-grid applications. Examples include backup power for hospitals and fire/police stations; power for remote locations such as spacecraft, weather stations, and rural areas; and portable applications such as cellular phones, global-positioning systems, and laptop computers. The widespread introduction of fuel cell technology, however, has been prevented to date by technical issues, high cost, and a lack of reliability.

In a typical acidic fuel cell, fuel is oxidized on an anode that is covered with a precious metal catalyst (e.g., platinum, or ruthenium on platinum), producing protons and electrons. At a cathode also covered with a precious metal catalyst, an oxidant such as oxygen is reduced and converted into water. These two electrocatalysis processes are currently used in most fuel cells.

During his Center appointment, Professor Kenis will investigate the potential for a novel approach to fuel cells: photocatalysis on inexpensive titanium oxide. The proposed process eliminates the precious metal catalysts, which significantly reduces costs and removes environmental concerns involved with their disposal after use. More importantly, the process can oxidize a wide range of organic compounds, removing restrictions on the type of fuel used.

Professor Kenis plans to analyze the resulting fuel cell’s size, cost, and performance in comparison with competing power-generating technologies, paying special attention to the engineering parameters that must be met by any solar device. Because of its inherent fuel flexibility, this photocatalytic fuel cell may particularly find application in resource-poor countries with abundant insolation, such as on the African continent.