Fuel cell breakthrough


Today, Science Magazine released groundbreaking fuel-cell research by Dr. Zhenhai Xia, UA professor of mechanical engineering, and a team of three other researchers from the University of Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Their discovery of a new class of electrodes that can be used in fuel cells provides an economical alternative to the costly precious-metal catalysts currently used in fuel cells.

Specifically, the team discovered that nitrogen-doped carbon nanotube arrays can act as metal-free electrochemical converters that produce electricity from fuel efficiently and economically.

"The nanotube arrays provide much better electrocatalytic activity, long-term operation stability and tolerance to crossover effect than platinum, which is currently used in fuel cells," Xia explains. "To our knowledge, the nanotube material represents the first metal-free electrocatalyst with performance that clearly exceeds that of the platinum electrode."

Fuel cells, which are currently under intensive research and development because of their promising large-scale applications as environmentally benign energy-conversion technologies, primarily utilize expensive platinum as a catalyst, hindering their commercial viability.

"This new class of electrodes could be used to develop low-cost and high-performance fuel cells of practical significance," Xia says. "The applications could someday include electric and hybrid vehicles, submarines that could operate silently underwater for weeks, airplanes powered by only a fuel cell and lightweight batteries, power plants, notebook computers, portable charging docks for electronics and power-hogging smart phones with large displays and elaborate features like GPS."

Xia and his team's published research is available at http://www.sciencemag.org. This is the second time in about four months that a major journal has published work from Xia and his collaborators. Science recently published their research for an adhesive 10 times better than gecko feet at resisting some forces.

Posted Feb. 6, 2009