Perfect fuel cells with imperfect graphene

An imperfect graphene structure with tiny holes could lead to improved fuel cells.


The major challenge in fuel cell technology is efficiently separating protons from hydrogen. In a study of single-layer graphene and water, researchers at Northwestern University found that slightly imperfect graphene shuttles protons—and only protons—from one side of the graphene membrane to the other in seconds. The membrane's speed and selectivity are much better than that of conventional membranes, offering engineers a new and simpler mechanism for fuel cell design.

"Imagine an electric car that charges in the same time it takes to fill a car with gas," said chemist Franz M. Geiger, who led the research. "And better yet—imagine an electric car that uses hydrogen as fuel, not fossil fuels or ethanol, and not electricity from the power grid, to charge a battery. Our surprising discovery provides an electrochemical mechanism that could make these things possible one day."

Defective single-layer graphene, it turns out, produces a membrane that is the world's thinnest proton channel—only one atom thick.

"We found if you just dial the graphene back a little on perfection, you will get the membrane you want," said Geiger, a professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "Everyone always strives to make really pristine graphene, but our data show if you want to get protons through, you need less perfect graphene."

In the atomic world of an aqueous solution, protons are pretty big, and scientists don't believe they can end up driven through a single layer of chemically perfect graphene at room temperature. (Graphene is a form of elemental carbon composed of a single flat sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a repeating hexagonal, or honeycomb, lattice.)

When Geiger and his colleagues studied graphene exposed to water, they found protons were moving through the graphene. Using cutting-edge laser techniques, imaging methods and computer simulations, they set out to learn how.

The researchers discovered that naturally occurring defects in the graphene—where a carbon atom is missing—triggers a chemical merry-go-round where protons from water on one side of the membrane shuttle to the other side in a few seconds. Their advanced computer simulations showed this occurs via a classic "bucket-line" mechanism first proposed in 1806.

The thinness of the atom-thick graphene makes it a quick trip for the protons, Geiger said. With conventional membranes, which are hundreds of nanometers thick, proton selection takes minutes—much too long to be practical.

Next, the research team asked the question: How many carbon atoms do we need to knock out of the graphene layer to get protons to move through? Just a handful in a square micron area of graphene, the researchers said.

Removing a few carbon atoms results in others being highly reactive, which starts the proton shuttling process. Only protons go through the tiny holes, making the membrane very selective.

"Our results will not make a fuel cell tomorrow, but it provides a mechanism for engineers to design a proton separation membrane that is far less complicated than what people had thought before," Geiger said. "All you need is slightly imperfect single-layer graphene."

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on ISSSource. Edited by Joy Chang, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media,

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
Safety for 18 years, warehouse maintenance tips, Ethernet and the IIoT, GAMS 2016 recap
2016 Engineering Leaders Under 40; Future vision: Where is manufacturing headed?; Electrical distribution, redefined
Strategic outsourcing delivers efficiency; Sleeve bearing clearance; Causes of water hammer; Improve air quality; Maintenance safety; GAMS preview
SCADA at the junction, Managing risk through maintenance, Moving at the speed of data
Safety at every angle, Big Data's impact on operations, bridging the skills gap
The digital oilfield: Utilizing Big Data can yield big savings; Virtualization a real solution; Tracking SIS performance
Applying network redundancy; Overcoming loop tuning challenges; PID control and networks
Driving motor efficiency; Preventing arc flash in mission critical facilities; Integrating alternative power and existing electrical systems
Package boilers; Natural gas infrared heating; Thermal treasure; Standby generation; Natural gas supports green efforts

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role of plant safety and offers advice on best practices.
This article collection contains several articles on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is transforming manufacturing.
This article collection contains several articles on strategic maintenance and understanding all the parts of your plant.
click me