New Membrane for Ethanol Fuel Cells that Breaks Carbon Bonds at Room Temperature

January 28 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 2

Brookhaven ethanol fuel cell

Once again, we are reminded that the future of energy will be shaped by materials scientists, and that nanoscale engineering gives us plenty of room to innovate around disruptive ideas.

Research teams from the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory, University of Delaware and Yeshiva University have announced the development of a new catalyst that could make ethanol-powered fuel cells feasible. 

Rather than use next generation ethanol in a combustion engine, we can imagine a more efficient conversion into electricity via a fuel cell.

Fuel cells create electricity by breaking chemical bonds into hydrogen ions and electrons then completing the reaction with oxygen binding to hydrogen to create water.

Nano-catalysts break carbon bonds
One of the challenges of (hydrogen rich) ethanol as a feedstock for fuel cells is the presence of carbon molecules.

“The ability to split the carbon-carbon bond and generate CO2 at room temperature is a completely new feature of catalysis,” says Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic “There are no other catalysts that can achieve this at practical potentials.”

The 'nanostructured' catalyst achieves faster oxidation using the combination of platinum and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles.  Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the reaction but it is signficantly less than traditional combustion based conversion (and assuming more non-food crop biomass is planted it is 'carbon neutral'.)  

“Ethanol is one of the most ideal reactants for fuel cells,” said Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic. “It’s easy to produce, renewable, nontoxic, relatively easy to transport, and it has a high energy density. In addition, with some alterations, we could reuse the infrastructure that’s currently in place to store and distribute gasoline.”

Why catalysis is so important
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Most energy is about interactions between molecules (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals).

These interactions can be improved by designing catalysts that lower costs and improve performance by or increasing the speed or reducing the temperature needed in the reaction.

Why be hopeful? 

The formal study of catalysis is very new discipline, and the nanoscale era of design creates unprecedented opportunities for clean energy especially related to carbon and hydrogen based reactions.



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This work is supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within DOE’s Office of Science.

Image Credit Brookhaven:
Model of a ternary electrocatalyst for ethanol oxidation consisting of platinum-rhodium clusters on a surface of tin dioxide. This catalyst can split the carbon-carbon bond and oxidize ethanol to carbon dioxide within fuel cells.

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