Asst. Prof. Xinfang Jin’s Goal of Achieving “Robust” Hydrogen Production Is Supported with $650K Grant

Asst. Prof. Xinfang Jin
Mechanical Engineering Asst. Prof. Xinfang Jin

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The National Science Foundation has recognized Asst. Prof. Xinfang Jin of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering with its prestigious faculty early career development CAREER award.
This highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization,” according to the agency.
Jin, who joined UMass Lowell in 2018, will use her CAREER grant, worth nearly $650,000 spread over five years, to research ways to greatly increase the production of hydrogen and the long-term storage of energy.
Renewable hydrogen fuel
Surplus electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind can be used to power electrolysis to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be stored as clean fuel or used in fuel cells to produce electricity on demand.
Specifically, Jin will study mechanisms that would enable devices called reversible solid oxide cells, or RSOCs, to efficiently switch between producing “robust” amounts of hydrogen and generating electricity. 
Hydrogen, a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, can supply the world’s energy needs for power generation, industry and transportation while significantly reducing emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Hydrogen used in a fuel cell to generate electricity produces only water vapor as a byproduct.
“RSOCs can potentially revolutionize the way power is generated and hydrogen fuel is produced,” says Jin. She says the devices can store excess electricity generated from other renewable sources like solar and wind by converting the surplus into hydrogen. 
“This stored energy can then be used when demand is high or when solar and wind are not available, ensuring a steady and reliable power supply,” Jin says. 
RSOCs can also be used in remote or off-grid locations to produce electricity and heat from locally available fuels or stored hydrogen, providing reliable energy and heating to communities without access to centralized power grids, she adds.
However, despite their technological promise, RSOCs face major challenges in durability due to the rapid degradation of the cells (a process called “delamination failure”) under prolonged, high-temperature operating conditions, according to Jin.
“My goal is to understand the complex delamination mechanisms taking place within the devices,” she explains. “By developing mitigation strategies to overcome these challenges, we could use RSOCs to drastically reduce the cost of large-scale, long-duration energy storage as well as to promote the integration of renewable energy sources into the power grid.”
Jin’s collaborators on the project include UML Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Scott Stapleton, Mingyuan Ge of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Prof. Kevin Huang of the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Assisting Jin in the lab work is UML doctoral student Yasser Shoukry.
Extending the Devices’ Lifespan
RSOC devices switch between two opposite operating modes – the electrolysis mode for producing hydrogen and the fuel cell mode for generating electricity. According to Jin, rapid degradation occurs during the electrolysis mode, caused by delamination failure at the cells’ oxygen electrode-electrolyte interface.
Xinfang Jin research group
Jin with her research team, from left, Ph.D. student Yasser Shoukry; former postdoctoral fellow Puvikkarasan Jayapragasam; former Ph.D. student Xiting Duan, who graduated in 2023; and current Ph.D. students Majid Ali and Henning Hoene.
Jin and her team will use an integrated mechanical and electrochemical approach to unravel the degradation process.
“This is the first time advanced, full-field X-ray imaging techniques and 3D multiphysics simulations will be conducted to understand the degradation mechanisms of the RSOC’s electrodes, which have very complicated microstructures,” she says. “Hopefully, our findings will lead to improved design of new oxygen electrodes to extend the device’s lifespan as well as develop protocols for safe operation of the cells.”