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Could the future of energy production be nano-enabled fuel cells?

27 November 2019

Could the future of energy production be nano-enabled fuel cells?

Scientists at the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research think so.

Unlike current fossil fuel based energy production systems fuel cells offer a clean and efficient way to generate electricity – with water and heat the only waste products. The drawback? Current fuel cell technology relies on high value and scarce metals such as platinum to act as a catalyst and speed up reactions in the fuel cell. If such metals can be removed from the process, the potential for fuel cells to form part of the solution to climate change and energy storage challenges are impressive, as they could provide power for large and small scale systems from power stations to laptop computers.

Scientists have long looked at the potential for carbon nanostructures to take the place of platinum, and other metals, in fuel cells, while maintaining performance. Today, in the journal SMALL a team from Trinity College and AMBER lead by Prof. Paula Colavita and Prof. Max García-Melchor have provided a roadmap for carbon material design to enable the next generation of metal-free fuel cell catalysts.

Speaking about the research, which features on the front cover of the SMALL, Prof. Colavita said: “Our findings offer a new vision of cooperativity among different properties of carbon materials that must be met to lower the cost of fuel cells. Together with Prof. Garcia-Melchor, we have identified important design principles for the next generation of smart carbons to enable an expansion of technologies based on renewables sources.”

Prof. García-Melchor added: “We believe these new insights may open up new avenues to leverage synergistic effects improving performance and allowing us to push the limits of carbon nanomaterials to outperform the state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals.”

The research was conducted by the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin, in conjunction with School of Physics, Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Trinity College Dublin, and The Faculty of Physics, University of Bucharest, Romania.

James A. Behan, Eric Mates-Torres, Serban N. Stamatin, Carlota Domínguez, Alessandro Iannaci, Karsten Fleischer, Md. Khairul Hoque, Tatiana S. Perova, Max García-Melchor,* and Paula E. Colavita,* Untangling Cooperative Effects of Pyridinic and Graphitic Nitrogen Sites at Metal-Free N-Doped Carbon Electrocatalysts for the Oxygen Reduction Reaction, SMALL 15, 48, (2019).
DOI: 10.1002/smll.201902081

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