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With NATO’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Department of Energy (DoE) has placed an emphasis on exploring hydrogen energy as a renewable energy source. A transition to utilizing hydrogen in energy requires significant technological advancements that UCF researchers have been working toward, and their efforts have been recognized by the DoE with a prestigious award.

At the 2024 Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) Spring Project Review Meeting, Professor Jihua Gou and his team in the Composite Materials and Structures Lab were recognized with the Best Poster Award for their outstanding progress in developing ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) for hydrogen combustion. The review meeting hosted more than 90 NETL funded projects in support of hydrogen energy and decarbonization.

The two-year project began in January 2023 after receiving $1 million in funding from the DOE’s National Energy Technologies Laboratory. The goal was to create a combustion liner that can address the complexities that come with a hydrogen turbine. Though hydrogen has a significantly higher energy content than natural gases, it also burns at a much higher temperature than natural gas. The increased flame temperature and chemical corrosion introduced by the water vapor byproduct poses a risk to the materials that are currently used in gas turbine engines, such as Inconel alloys and silicon carbide matrix composites, and the small molecule size of hydrogen can lead to hydrogen embrittlement of the existing materials, risking dangerous fuel leaks.

The complex project has been a collaborative effort that includes UCF’s Propulsion and Energy Research Laboratory (PERL), led by Professor Kareem Ahmed, and researchers at the University of Miami.

“We need a different kind of expertise as this issue is a difficult issue,” Gou says. “You have to share different knowledge like materials design, fabrication and hydrogen testing to attack the challenges associated with H2 combustion. Then we can generate some new knowledge that eventually meets the performance targets.”

Award recipient and mechanical engineering graduate student Christopher Varela led the material fabrication team to a solution that shows promise for hydrogen combustion through the utilization of a manufactured Yttria-Stabilized Zirconia (YSZ) fiber reinforced ceramic matrix composite. The fiber was found to be resistant to heat and oxidation, highly customizable and inexpensive to produce. Their results are promising for the future use of CMCs in hydrogen chamber combustion liners.

To find this solution, the team processed high-performance raw materials, which had to successfully pass two different tests. The first test was a hydrogen torch test, which exposes small samples directly to hydrogen flames for 10 minutes to explore the acute effects of hydrogen flames in a condensed period. By comparing the properties of the material beforehand with electron microscopes and infrared cameras, the team was able to determine whether the material held up against the hydrogen combustion. Once the material withstood the torch for 10 minutes, the team partnered with PERL to simulate more realistic conditions utilizing larger samples and a hydrogen combustion chamber, which was successfully run for two minutes.

“The project has been progressing very well and we’re seeing really good results,” Varela says. “[The award] was very validating. It felt good to be recognized for the work that we’re doing and it’s encouraging. It helps us feel like we’re on the right track.”

The project’s future includes long-duration testing for up to 60 continuous minutes. Ultimately, the goal would be to develop materials that can last a decade in gas turbines.

The promising development isn’t just good for the planet’s future, but for Varela’s as well. His unique experience with CMCs and with hydrogen combustion gives him an advantage over his peers and makes him a promising applicant to industries interested in the untapped potential of hydrogen.

“As the world makes a larger effort to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greener energy, experience in niche areas like hydrogen combustion and ultra-high temperature ceramic matrix composites will become a very valuable asset when entering the workforce,” Verula says. “After receiving my graduate degree, I plan to enter the aerospace or energy industry, ideally working on gas turbines either for transportation or energy production.”