The following news release is being issued today by the U.S.
Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. An electronic
version with images is available at: http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/P...y.asp?prID=898
For release at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, January 25, 2009
New Catalyst Paves the Path for Ethanol-Powered Fuel Cells
UPTON, NY - A team of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's
(DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, in collaboration with
researchers from the University of Delaware and Yeshiva University,
has developed a new catalyst that could make ethanol-powered fuel
cells feasible. The highly efficient catalyst performs two crucial,
and previously unreachable steps needed to oxidize ethanol and produce
clean energy in fuel cell reactions. Their results are published
online in the January 25, 2009 edition of Nature Materials.
Like batteries that never die, hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen
and oxygen into water and, as part of the process, produce
electricity. However, efficient production, storage, and transport of
hydrogen for fuel cell use is not easily achieved. As an alternative,
researchers are studying the incorporation of hydrogen-rich compounds,
for example, the use of liquid ethanol in a system called a direct
ethanol fuel cell.
"Ethanol is one of the most ideal reactants for fuel cells," said
Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic. "It's easy to produce, renewable,
nontoxic, relatively easy to transport, and it has a high energy
density. In addition, with some alterations, we could reuse the
infrastructure that's currently in place to store and distribute
A major hurdle to the commercial use of direct ethanol fuel cells is
the molecule's slow, inefficient oxidation, which breaks the compound
into hydrogen ions and electrons that are needed to generate
electricity. Specifically, scientists have been unable to find a
catalyst capable of breaking the bonds between ethanol's carbon
But at Brookhaven, scientists have found a winner. Made of platinum
and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles, the
research team's electrocatalyst is capable of breaking carbon bonds at
room temperature and efficiently oxidizing ethanol into carbon dioxide
as the main reaction product. Other catalysts, by comparison, produce
acetalhyde and acetic acid as the main products, which make them
unsuitable for power generation.
"The ability to split the carbon-carbon bond and generate CO2 at room
temperature is a completely new feature of catalysis," Adzic said.
"There are no other catalysts that can achieve this at practical
Structural and electronic properties of the electrocatalyst were
determined using powerful x-ray absorption techniques at Brookhaven's
National Synchrotron Light Source, combined with data from
transmission electron microscopy analyses at Brookhaven's Center for
Functional Nanomaterials. Based on these studies and calculations, the
researchers predict that the high activity of their ternary catalyst
results from the synergy between all three constituents - platinum,
rhodium, and tin dioxide - knowledge that could be applied to other
alternative energy applications.
"These findings can open new possibilities of research not only for
electrocatlysts and fuel cells but also for many other catalytic
processes," Adzic said.
Next, the researchers will test the new catalyst in a real fuel cell
in order to observe its unique characteristics first hand.
This work is supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within
DOE's Office of Science.
One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the
Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven
National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and
environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national
security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific
facilities available to university, industry and government
researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of
Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company
founded by the Research Foundation of State University of New York on
behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of
Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and
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