Graphene breakthrough 'could boost fuel cell performance'


A newly-discovered property of graphene could pave the way for the creation of new hydrogen-based fuel cell technologies, University of Manchester researchers have declared.

The one-atom thick material has been touted by the technology industry for several years now as a possible replacement for silicon in computer chips, because of its ability to quickly conduct electrons.

However, it's now been discovered protons hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons can also pass through the material, despite graphene being impermeable to all other gases and liquids.

The findings are the result of an international collaboration involving researchers from China and The Netherlands, as well as the University of Manchester.

The research team also found that protons pass through the material better at higher temperatures.

It's claimed the findings could lead to graphene being used to boost the efficiency of proton-conducting membranes in fuel cells where hydrogen and oxygen are used to generate electricity.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student working on the project, explained: "You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell."

At the moment, the researchers admit the amount of hydrogen that can be transferred through the material is small, but by sharing their findings hope it will inspire others to experiment with the technology.

"This is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects," Lozada-Hidalgo added.

"To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort."

Furthermore, it is also hoped the discovery could one day lead to graphene-based membranes being used to collect hydrogen from the atmosphere that can then be used in fuel cells to create mobile electric generators.

Dr Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher working on the project, said the group is hopeful about their findings being commercialised in the not too distant future.

"It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square metre sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later."

The news comes after Quieen Mary University researchers in London hailed graphene's potential as a secure communication connection.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.