MecE Professor Explores Creative Solutions to Society's Energy Issues

Secanell's lab is currently pursuing research into fuel cells, flywheels and cooling towers.








Dr. Marc Secanell returned this past July from his sabbatical and is pleased to be settling back into a routine of teaching and working with his grad students in his lab here on campus. Secanell and his lab members are currently working on modeling and simulations of fuel cells, flywheels and cooling towers. Trained as an electrical engineer at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Dr. Secanell has always been interested in energy and the energy needs of society.

During the fourth year of his undergraduate degree, Dr. Secanell went on exchange from Barcelona and spent a year studying at the University of Victoria. The exchange opened his eyes to a variety of new educational experiences. “In Barcelona we didn’t have textbooks,” he explains. “We just took lecture notes. So at UVic, I discovered that you could learn through reading as well. That really broadened my horizons.”

After completing his degree in Spain, Secanell wanted to return to UVic for a Master’s in Applied Science. “I was offered a position by a professor in aeronautics who had funding for someone to do mathematical modeling,” he says. Secanell took the opportunity and completed his MSc in a lab working on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. “I learned a lot but the project wasn’t a great fit for me,” he says. “I come from a place where the military has not always been friendly to us. So I did not want to work on military projects.”

Secanell was awarded an NSERC grant for his PhD project and so could choose to study what he wanted. “I asked myself how I could contribute to society,” he says. “Electricity and power are real issues in society. I grew up in the Pyrenees where there are many hydro-electric dams and in Victoria at the time there was a big push for fuel cells. So I returned to my interest in electrical.” For his PhD, Secanell studied fuel cell efficiency.

Currently Secanell and members of his lab are investigating how to increase the efficiency of the platinum catalyst layer in fuel cells. Platinum is used as a catalyst for many reactions because it attracts molecules easily but also releases them readily. “I think of it like birds in a tree,” says Secanell. “They come there to mate and build their nests and lay their eggs. But once that process is finished, they fly away again.” However, the platinum catalyst layer in fuel cells is very expensive and still very inefficient. For example, a 2005 study found that the platinum catalyst layer accounted for 34% of the overall cost of a fuel call stack. Yet only an estimated 10-20% of the catalyst is used in the stack’s operation.

Secanell and his lab are using ink jet printers and 3D printers as well as different imaging methods to analyze and model the performance of the catalyst layer. “We print one layer of platimum, test it and model it to determine where the platinum is deposited and its microstructure. Then we can print another layer on top of that and see how that layer is deposited and analyze its performance.” The team uses x-ray imaging and electron scanning microscopes to model the deposition process and patterns.

The team has found that as platinum layers are built up, there is an initial increase in performance but a point is reached where performance is not improved. “The platinum is there but something prevents further reactions.” For instances like this, when the team cannot see a process through imaging, they will use numerical models to understand the processes at work and reach out to others for help. “We also collaborate with people in the department,” says Secanell. They recently worked with Dr. Prashant Waghmare on the question of water flux in and out of fuel cells. “Dr. Waghmare performed experiments for us to see how water droplets deform under different flow rates and we did the numerical simulations.”

Now that he’s back from his sabbatical, Secanell plans to take advantage of the security offered to Associate Professors. “As Assistant Professor your research has to be a bit conservative because you are concerned about getting tenure,” he says. “As Associate Professor you can take more risks with your research so you can be more creative. Of course,” he laughs, “you still have students and you have to make sure you're training them."