Graphene-wrapped nanocrystals may open door toward next-gen fuel cells



Ultra-Thin  oxide layer (oxygen atoms shown in red) coating graphene-wrapped magnesium nanoparticles (orange) still allows in hydrogen atoms (blue) for hydrogen storage applications

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a mix of metal nanocrystals wrapped in graphene that may open the door to the creation of a new type of fuel cell by enabling enhanced hydrogen storage properties.

Graphene-Wrapped Nanocrystals Make Inroads Toward Next-Gen Fuel Cells



Ultra-thin oxide layer (oxygen atoms shown in red) coating graphene-wrapped magnesium nanoparticles (orange) still allows in hydrogen atoms (blue) for hydrogen storage applications

The team studied how graphene can be used as both selective shielding, as well as a performance increasing factor in terms of hydrogen storage. 

The study drew upon a range of Lab expertise and capabilities to synthesize and coat the magnesium crystals, which measure only 3-4 nanometers (billionths of a meter) across; study their nanoscale chemical composition with X-rays; and develop computer simulations and supporting theories to better understand how the crystals and their carbon coating function together.

Reduced graphene oxide (or rGO) has nanoscale holes that permit hydrogen to pass through while keeping larger molecules away. This carbon wrapping was intended to prevent the magnesium – which is used as a hydrogen storage material – from reacting with its environment, including oxygen, water vapor and carbon dioxide. 

Such exposures could produce a thick coating of oxidation that would prevent the incoming hydrogen from accessing the magnesium surfaces. 

The study, however, suggests that an atomically thin layer of oxidation did form on the crystals during their preparation. Surprisingly, this oxide layer doesn’t seem to degrade the material’s performance.

The study’s lead author stated “Most people would suspect that the oxide layer is bad news for hydrogen storage, which it turns out may not be true in this case. Without this oxide layer, the reduced graphene oxide would have a fairly weak interaction with the magnesium, but with the oxide layer the carbon-magnesium binding seems to be stronger. 

That’s a benefit that ultimately enhances the protection provided by the carbon coating. There doesn’t seem to be any downside”.

The researchers noted that the current generation of hydrogen-fueled vehicles power their fuel cell engines using compressed hydrogen gas. “This requires bulky, heavy cylindrical tanks that limit the driving efficiency of such cars”, and the nanocrystals offer one possibility for eliminating these bulky tanks by storing hydrogen within other materials.

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