Major step forward in non-platinum, carbon nanotube based catalyst for fuel cells

February 10 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 2

Carbon Nanotube CC Gutchis

Becoming 'energy efficient' goes far beyond changing light bulbs.  Our greatest gains will come from moving beyond today's 'combustion' energy systems that burn fuels in large power plants and under our hoods.

Central to this 'post-combustion era' strategy is the fuel cell- which converts chemical energy of hydrogen or hydrogen rich fuels (e.g. natural gas, methanol) into electrical energy.  Fuel cells are modular, have no moving parts, offer higher efficiencies, lower maintenance and are ideal for distributed applications.

One of the major roadblocks has been the high costs of platinum catalysts that are peppered on fuel cell membranes (MEAs).  To scale up in the decades ahead, fuel cell researchers need to find non-precious metal catalysts.

Can Carbon outperform Platinum?
Now a research team from the University of Dayton has found a way to create a carbon nanotube based catalyst that might outperform platinum and dramatically drop the costs of fuel cells.

Shape helps speed up reactions
The research team, led by Dr Liming Dai, synthesized carbon nanotubes using an iron base and doped nitrogen particles to change the shape (and properties) of the nanotube cathode, resulting in a faster reaction / higher efficiency.

New Scientist reports Dai's claim that "They are even better than platinum, long regarded as the best catalyst," as they avoid problems with carbon 'poisoning' that leads to lower performance. 

We have written extensively on the disruptive role of nanoscale science and engineering in all energy applications (old and new), and the importance of 'shape' in determining molecular system performance in catalysis.  We cannot simply extrapolate our assumptions of what is possible or impossible with carbon or hydrogen based on a microscale era of scientific knowledge.  

Giving Carbon a New Image
(Nanotubes, Nanoparticles & Graphene Sheets)

Carbon is a misunderstood element that deserves a little more love and attention than it currently gets in the media.

Carbon is the building block of all life, and the foundation of our economy.  We can say that we use 'coal' or 'oil', but really our energy comes from breaking the bonds of carbon and hydrogen formed by ancient plants and microbes.  After we use that energy to power our cars or generate electricity, the result is carbon dioxide.

CO2 changes the 'energy state' of the atmosphere, but when it is bonded to hydrogen (et al) we call it other things - like fuel, plastic, cellulose. 

We only need to learn how to work with carbon and its 'sticky', strong bonds.  Many researchers are looking at algae to 'eat' the carbon, while others are working on materials that can absorb the carbon for use in other applications.

Carbon bonded with itself and other molecules can create very disruptive energy technologies.

Carbon nanotubes, nanoparticles and nanosheets (graphene) are used in batteries, solar cells, fuel cells - and can also reinforce composite materials. 

Carbon is probably the most critical 'building block' component of our 'new energy economy' and it could use a PR make-over....


via MIT Technology Review


Image Credit: Carbon Nanotube by Ghutchis via Flickr CC License


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