Self-assembled metal nanostructures improve fuel cell performance

November 25 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 4 Hot

The way to improve fuel cells, energy storage devices and solar cells is to evolve our ability to control the way molecules and photons flow through materials and lead to other reactions. We do not need to overcome the Laws of Physics, just improve the design of materials at the molecular level.

What happened?
Cornell University researchers have designed platinum nanoparticles that automatically assemble into complex, ordered patterns and can be used for efficient and low cost catalysts in fuel cells and other micro-fabrication processes.

“The challenge with metals is that their high surface energies cause the particles to cluster,” explains , led by Professor Uli Wiesner who led the team. “This tendency to aggregate makes it difficult to coax metal particles into lining up in an orderly fashion, which is a critical step in forming ordered materials.”

Instead of relying on the traditional (and imprecise) ‘heat it and beat it’ approach” to structuring metals, Professor Wiesner, Scott C. Warren, and their coworkers prepared their materials through self-assembly of block copolymers and stabilized platinum nanoparticles. This ‘bottom up’ approach can lower costs and improve the precision of material design.

Why is this important to the future of energy?
We need breakthroughs in materials science that make energy systems cost effective and clean. Nanoscale science (billionth of a meter) and engineering is the platform of future innovation.

Fuel cell costs are based on two main factors: the cost of membranes (MEAs) that enable the reactions and manufacturing techniques to build the device. The way forward is to reduce the amount of precious metal catalysts needed in membranes, and also lower the cost of manufacturing materials around self-assembly. These metallic structures developed by the Cornell team could take us further down the road towards lower cost energy systems that go beyond traditional combustion energy conversion.

Related research:

Cornell researchers developed a “one-pot” process to create porous films of crystalline metal oxides that could lead to more efficient fuel cells and solar cells.

Credit: Image courtesy Scott Warren and Uli Wiesner, Cornell University and National Science Foundation.

Comment Thread (5 Responses)

  1. We do not need breakthroughs in ‘coal’, ‘solar’, ‘electricity’ or ‘hydrogen’, we need breakthroughs in materials science that make these systems cost effective and clean. Nanoscale science (billionth of a meter) and engineering is the platform of future innovation.

    We need intermediaries as a bridge before we can apply these advanced materials in the real world.. We’re just procuring the computer power(1 petaflop just this year and 1 exaflop in the subsequent 10 years to follow) to convert this stuff into applied technology. We’re almost there, not yet, though.

    Also, the breakthroughs in material sciences will be breakthroughs for coal, hydrogen, and solar. That is a particularly odd statement to me.

    Posted by: Covus   November 26, 2008
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  2. Well, speak of the devil: There has just recently been a recent breakthrough in material science for solar cells: http://www.physorg.com/news146849259.html

    Neat timing.

    Posted by: Covus   November 26, 2008
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  3. Covus yes, maybe the sentence is strange… but think you get the point… the future depends on materials science, not the resources of energy. The sun’s photons are not changing, it’s the materials we use to capture them that make it useful. Thanks!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   November 26, 2008
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  4. I keep seeing headlines that say “solar cell breakthrough increase efficiency by 20%” or the like, but have yet to see the product. I would think a breakthrough like that would take only months to develop into a product. If someone invented a “Mr. Fusion” like I have on my DeLorean, you can be sure there’d be production on it within a few months.

    Posted by: martymcfly   November 26, 2008
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  5. martymcfly said:

    “I keep seeing headlines that say “solar cell breakthrough increase efficiency by 20%” or the like, but have yet to see the product. I would think a breakthrough like that would take only months to develop into a product.”

    There can be lots of reasons for that mm, but mostly I suspect it boils down to the particular increase not providing sufficient improvement over existing technology to justify the expense of attaining rights to the process and changing (or building from scratch) the necessary facility to manufacturer the item.

    Add to that the often un- (or at least under-) stated fact that the improvement de jure hasn’t been measured in real-world conditions and/or isn’t actually capable of being manufactured in commercial quantities (see: graphene or carbon nano-tubes as example), and you can easily see how such refinements never make it to market.

    Rest assured, there will come a convergence of advancement in both application and manufacture such to allow for confluence of diverse contributions. When it happens, just sit back and enjoy the shocked amazement being expressed all around you. If you’re lucky, you’ll actually have a bit of cash on hand to invest as well. :)

    Posted by: Will   November 26, 2008
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