Wonder material could harvest energy from thin air

Wonder material could harvest energy from thin air

Graphene – which has a similar molecular structure to the graphite commonly found in pencils – was discovered in 2004. The material is two-dimensional, one atom thick, has superconducting properties, and is 200 times stronger than steel.

Bold claims for new battery technology have been around since the invention of the lead-acid battery more than 150 years ago.

But researchers at Manchester University in the UK say their latest discovery involving the new wonder material graphene could be the most revolutionary advance in battery technology yet.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas from the atmosphere — a development that could pave the way for electric generators powered by air.

“It looks extremely simple and equally promising,” said Dr Sheng Hu, a post-doctoral researcher in the project. “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.”

Pencil power

At the heart of the technology is the remarkable physical properties of graphene — a substance with the same atomic structure as the lead found in the humble household pencil.

Isolated in 2004 by a team from Manchester University headed by Andrew Geim and Kostya Novoselov — both of whom won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery in 2010 — graphene is already well known as a technological game-changer.

The first two-dimensional crystal known to science, graphene is the thinnest, lightest and strongest object ever obtained. It is harder than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel.

Flexible, transparent and able to conduct electricity even better than copper, the ground-breaking substance is set to revolutionize everything from smartphones and wearable technology to green technology and medicine.

Renowned for its barrier qualities, graphene is just one atom thick – more than a million times thinner than a human hair.

Membrane technology

The latest discovery makes graphene attractive for possible uses in proton-conducting membranes which are at the core of modern fuel-cell technology.

Fuel cells work by using oxygen and hydrogen as a fuel, converting the chemical energy produced by its input directly into electricity. However, current membranes that separate the protons necessary for this process are relatively inefficient, allowing contamination in the fuel crossover.

Using graphene membranes could boost their efficiency and durability.

The team found the protons passed through the ultra-thin crystals with relative ease, especially at raised temperatures and with the use of a platinum-based catalyst coated on the membrane film.

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