Innovations in Materials Science that Harness the Potential Resources in Landfills

Energy, Materials Studio

materials science
Landfills are filled with trash, but materials science software can help transform this trash into usable energy.
Image source: Flickr user Gene Spesard

Each day, approximately 1 million tons of waste products are produced in our landfills due to the decomposition of organic materials.1 Methane is the most prevalent compound in the mixture of gases known as landfill gas (LFG), though carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen are present as well.2 Perhaps most interesting are the many ways in which landfill gas can be used productively to generate electricity, heat appliances or create a variety of other chemical compounds.3 Instead of having these gases escape off into the air, materials scientists are harnessing the potential energy in LFG to create “green fuels” that benefit both the environment and our lives.

Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells (MCFCs) from Landfill Wastes

Of particular interest to materials science and landfill research is the development of molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs) using gas that is generated in landfills. Fuel cells enable the efficient conversion of chemical energy from fuel into electricity via redox reactions. MCFCs can operate at very high temperatures, enabling the use of non-precious metals as catalysts to reduce costs. MCFCs are also more efficient than traditional fuel cells. They do not require external reformers, devices that extract pure hydrogen from a source in order to power the fuel cell, which significantly lowers the costs of generating these fuel cells.

One disadvantage of MCFCs is that the high temperatures and corrosive electrolytes (molten carbonate mixtures) can accelerate the rate at which fuel cell components are damaged. Given that fuel cells are required to generate power in remote locations, such as spacecraft or weather stations, this is a potentially dangerous characteristic of MCFCs.

Materials Science to the Rescue of MCFCs

In order to generate cheaper fuel cells that are still durable using landfill gases, advances in materials science must be made in terms of the materials used and the identification of potential compounds that can increase cell life:

Materials: Because MCFCs operate at high temperatures, materials science researchers must carefully select the materials at the anode and cathode to withstand these harsh conversions. What are practical ways forward? The liquid electrolytes used in MCFCs could be modified to decrease their corrosiveness and develop a balance between ionic conductivity, stability and longevity. This requires the development of novel surfaces and polymers to optimize the interactions of all fuel cell components.

Compounds: Different compounds commonly used in materials science (i.e. polymers, crystalline molecules, alloys, etc.) could assist in the conversion of various components of the MCFCs into fuel. Nanoparticles containing certain material cores, for example, could assist in the conversion of chemical compounds into electrical energy.

For materials science companies interested in tackling the problems inherent to MCFCs, researchers should consider the use of specialized software like BIOVIA Materials Studio. Computational modeling can help predict the behavior of MCFCs by showing how different materials will interact with one another. Simulations can similarly help materials scientists to predict the rate of conversion, efficiency and general behavior of MCFCs when certain catalysts, for example, are added to mixtures.

From eyelash extensions to medical electronics, materials science researchers are using predictive software to determine how changing one chemical for another can dramatically improve a product. To learn how the materials science software might support the efforts of your science and products, please contact us today.

  1. ”IFG collection systems,” October 8, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landfill_gas_utilization#LFG_collection_systems
  2. “Landfill Methane Outreach Program,” May 28, 2015, http://www3.epa.gov/lmop/basic-info/
  3. “Landfill projects on the rise,” February 25, 2010, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/energy/2010-02-24-landfill-energy_N.htm

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