The idea of clean energy may conjure up images of vast fields filled with windmills slowly churning away or an entire cityscape covered with solar panels. But this idyllic vision must cede to a more realistic one where we accept that fossil fuels — at least for the short term — will continue to play a major role in energy production.

In this spirit, there has been much research to increase the dismal efficiency and the environmental cleanliness of coal power plants. One major innovation to this end has been the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). Instead of just burning lumps of coal to heat water and drive turbines, the fuels cells oxidize the coal in a more controlled way, resulting in a much higher efficiencies and lower emissions.

By the anodes are typically constructed of a material that eventually gets gunked up with carbon buildup, causing the anodes to degrade over time.


A solution to the problem has been proposed by a team of scientists led by Meilin Liu at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The team has found a way to embed the material with barium oxide nanostructures that prevents the carbon from building up and deactivating the anode. According to Nanowerk, the structures oxidize "the carbon as it forms, keeping the nickel electrode surfaces clean even when carbon-containing fuels are used at low temperatures."

The team hopes that because the solution builds on previous technology, it will be easily integrated into existing systems. Liu has high hopes for the technology and tells Nanowerk "This could ultimately be the cleanest, most efficient and cost-effective way of converting coal into electricity."

Credit: Creativ Studio Heinemann/Westend61/Corbis