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The utilization of porous media/metal foam in fuel cells and solar power systems

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Renewable energy sources, including solar, wave, geothermal, and wind energy, are sustainable and inexhaustible sources of energy. The utilization of renewable energy can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas footprint by minimizing the consumption of fossil fuels for electricity generation, thereby promoting a cleaner and greener environment. The European Union has set a target to meet its entire energy demand through renewable and sustainable energy systems, which has motivated researchers to explore the application of renewable energy to achieve this goal. However, the low efficiency and high production cost of renewable energy pose significant challenges, necessitating the reduction of production costs and improvement of efficiency to promote renewable energy globally.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which store chemical energy, fuel cells generate electrical energy from the chemical energy supplied at the anode and cathode. The power density of fuel cells varies depending on the types of reactants used. Various types of fuel cells, such as Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC), Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell (PAFC), Solid Acid Fuel Cell (SAFC), Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC), Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC), and Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC), are available in the laboratory and market. The environmentally friendly by-product of fuel cells makes them a preferable choice for renewable energy systems. The fuel cell market is growing worldwide, and the stationary fuel cell market is expected to reach 50 GW by 2020. To advance the commercialization of fuel cells, various approaches have been taken to improve their existing components, aiming to reduce costs and improve performance.

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Solar energy is a permanent source of heat and light emitted from the sun to the Earth. The Earth receives approximately 170 trillion kW of incoming solar radiation (insolation) at the upper atmosphere, of which approximately 47% reaches the Earth’s surface. The remaining energy is reflected back into space by clouds (17%), absorbed by ozone, water vapor, and dust (19%), scattered by air molecules (8%), absorbed by clouds (4%), and reflected into space by the surface (6%). Solar energy is a crucial source of renewable energy as it is abundant, non-polluting, and free. The solar energy received by the Earth in one and a half hours (480 EJ) is more than the energy consumption retrieved from all sources in 2011 (430 EJ). Therefore, the development of solar energy harvesting systems is essential to promote global renewable energy production and use, addressing the depletion of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Additionally, solar energy can help combat global warming by reducing the dependency on fossil fuels, which emit harmful gases into the atmosphere.

The market offers a variety of solar energy harvesting systems, including solar chimney, solar thermal energy storage, solar heater, concentrate photovoltaic, solar receiver/collector, solar pond, and photovoltaic panel. However, the low efficiency and high cost of these systems have hindered their widespread use in electricity generation. Therefore, it is crucial to improve solar energy harvesting systems, such as enhancing heat transfer or cooling performance, to promote their application in the global market.

Metal foam is a novel material with exceptional properties that can be utilized in various applications. It possesses excellent mechanical properties, is lightweight, and maintains high strength and rigidity. Additionally, it exhibits excellent acoustic properties for sound absorption applications. The complex geometry within the metal foam increases the surface area per unit volume, making it an ideal candidate for heat transfer or thermal management applications, such as heat exchangers. By varying the characteristics of metal foam, such as permeability, pore size, and pores per inch (PPI), it can provide a unique interaction with the fluid that flows through it, resulting in different observations.

There are two classes of metal foam: open cell and closed cell. Open cell metal foam allows the fluid to flow freely through one cell to another, and the cells are not closed. In contrast, closed-cell metal foam consists of continuous cell walls that separate one cell from another with the formation of a discrete section. The geometry of the cell is usually spherical in shape. Depending on the application, different characteristics of metal foam should be chosen to meet the design requirements.

In light of the above, metal foam can introduce a new dimension in renewable energy applications. For instance, it has been utilized as a gas diffusion layer, electrode, or flow field in fuel cells, as well as a heat transfer medium in solar energy harvesting systems to improve efficiency and electrical performance. Metal foam, with its excellent thermal conductivity and high solid to fluid interfacial area that enhances fluid mixing, is an ideal heat transfer candidate for solar energy harvesting systems.

Although numerous solar energy harvesting systems exist, not all are suitable for implementation with metal foam. Solar chimneys, solar collectors/receivers, solar heat exchangers/heaters, and thermal energy storage are examples of solar energy harvesting systems that are appropriate for metal foam. Furthermore, the cost of metal foam has been significantly reduced due to advancements in manufacturing methods. A new manufacturing process has the potential to significantly reduce production costs, thereby facilitating the commercialization of metal foam. The selection of metal foam for a specific application is further simplified by standardization by the agency, which will promote the use of metal foam in the renewable energy field.

This study conducts a critical review of the applications of metal foam in fuel cells and solar energy harvesting systems, encompassing various types of metal foam applications in fuel cells, such as proton exchange membrane fuel cells, microbial fuel cells, direct methanol fuel cells, alkaline fuel cells, and solid oxide fuel cells. Additionally, the review discusses the applications of metal foam in solar collectors and thermal energy storage systems. The primary objective of this review is to provide an overview of the performance of metal foam in fuel cells and solar power systems, as well as to offer valuable insights into the future development of fuel cells and solar power systems using metal foam. Furthermore, the challenges associated with the use of metal foam in fuel cells and solar power systems are also addressed in the discussion.

Although metal foam has been utilized in fuel cells and solar power systems for several years, the comprehension of the flow field, electrical and heat transfer properties in such systems remains limited. This is primarily attributed to the intricate internal geometrical structure of metal foam struts. Given that metal foam typically displays a random structure, it is challenging to establish a general correlation that characterizes the properties of this material. Several investigations have indicated that metal foam is appropriate for diverse applications in the automotive, aerospace, and electronics industries.

The bipolar plate is a crucial constituent of the fuel cell, accounting for over 70% of its weight and more than 40% of its cost. As such, extensive research has been conducted to reduce its weight and enhance its performance. The bipolar plate serves as the backbone of the PEMFC, functioning as both current collectors and flow field for reactants. Graphite is a commonly used material for the bipolar plate due to its excellent surface contact resistance and superior corrosion resistance. However, it exhibits lower performance compared to the metal foam bipolar plate.

The design of the flow field of the bipolar plate plays a critical role in determining the fuel cell’s performance. In this regard, we investigated the effects of the flow field design by utilizing metal foam as the flow distributor. We proposed five types of flow fields based on metal foam and compared them with the graphite bipolar plate. Our findings revealed that a metal foam flow distributor outperformed a graphite bipolar plate. Furthermore, performance can be further improved by utilizing multiple inlets and dividing metal foam into multiple regions to ensure better gas distribution.

Additionally, we explored different designs of anode housing (flow field) using aluminum foam. Numerical investigations of flow plate designs revealed that open pore cellular foam performs better than traditional fuel cell flow plate designs. The new design reduces dead zones, which can lead to water accumulation that negatively affects fuel cell performance.

The solar collector is a device that functions as a heat exchanger, whereby solar energy is absorbed and subsequently converted into heat. The heat is then conveyed by the fluid flow within the solar collector and conducted to the end user. This technology is commonly employed for low temperature applications, such as providing heat for buildings, hot water, and solar cooling in air conditioning processes. The efficiency of a solar collector is influenced by various parameters, including its geometry, design, working fluid, and operating conditions. Flat plate solar collectors are widely utilized for low and medium heating applications. The performance of a solar collector is contingent upon the amount of solar energy absorbed and the efficacy of heat transfer to the working fluid. A lower mean temperature between the collector surface and the fluid will result in superior performance. To achieve higher efficiency, the heat transfer rate must be augmented.

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The utilization of metal foam is not restricted solely to flat-plate solar collectors, but rather extends to other types of solar collectors, including tubular solar receivers and volumetric solar receivers. Lim et al. conducted a numerical investigation of the optimized design of the tubular solar receiver utilizing a porous medium. The design point was identified to provide guidelines for manufacturing processes. Porosity, thermal conductivity, and the length of the porous medium were found to be factors that contribute to a highly efficient tubular solar receiver. The maximum temperature of the solar collector was determined by the thermal conductivity and porosity of the porous materials. The combination of all design points resulted in an outlet temperature of the tubular solar receiver that was approximately 13 °C higher than the previous unmodified system. In a study conducted by Reddy et al., the performance of the porous disc enhanced receiver was found to outweigh that of the tubular solar receiver. The thermal gradient between the receiver surface and the fluid was less than that of the conventional tubular receiver in the case of the porous disc enhanced receiver. Baskar et al. improved the efficiency of the tubular receiver. At a Reynolds number of 31,845, the Nusselt number for the porous disc receiver was approximately 70% higher than that for the tubular solar receiver.

Metal foam has been utilized as a means of augmenting the performance of fuel cells, specifically with respect to current density and flow distribution, by applying it to the electrodes, gas diffusion layer, and flow field. Additionally, metal foam has been employed as a heat exchanger in solar energy harvesting systems to enhance their efficiency. The exceptional results obtained through experimental testing suggest the potential for commercialization of metal foam products within the renewable energy sector. Numerous experiments and numerical simulations have been conducted to investigate the potential application of metal foam in fuel cell and solar energy harvesting systems. The findings suggest that metal foam is a promising material for implementation in these systems, as it can enhance performance and offer additional benefits, such as reduced cost and overall weight. However, it should be noted that metal foam alone is not sufficient for use in a fuel cell system, as it is not corrosion-resistant, is susceptible to carbon deposition at high temperatures, and is not hydrophobic. Therefore, a coating is necessary to mitigate these issues and improve the electrical characteristics of the metal foam. In the case of a solar energy harvesting system, metal foam can be modified to enhance thermal performance, such as by embedding paraffin into the material. While nickel foam is commonly recommended for fuel cell applications, there is no consensus on the types of metal foam that are best suited for solar energy harvesting systems. This presents an opportunity for future research. Furthermore, there is a lack of numerical studies that establish a correlation between the characteristics of metal foam and its performance. Future studies can focus on developing porous media models to create a set of correlation equations that can predict performance by manipulating the characteristics of the metal foam. This approach can significantly reduce the time and cost associated with producing a prototype for experimental study.


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Our materials research team from Tsinghua University postdoctoral researcher lin and Harbin Institute of Technology researcher Mu, Nanjing University of Technology researcher Wei, they share their expertise in foam metal materials article.

About HGP

WE were established in 2003, located in the Gaoxin Zone of Guangdong-Guangxi Cooperation Special Experimental Zone, covering an area of 70 mu, with a plant of about 30,000 square meters, with more than 170 employees, is an advanced new material technology enterprise integrating research and development, production and sales.

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