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Model of successful catalyst for ethanol combustionA 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 gasoline."

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 atoms.

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 potentials."

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.

 

See original news item: ScienceDaily, Jan-26-2009  
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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-29-2009)   Web site
Not sure about transport of hydrogen vs ethanol. I presume we would not need to rely on oil companies to do the transport of ethanol.

Ethanol need not be produced from food crops. Corn and sugar are easy sources, but as you say have large impact on food production and land arability. So it may depend on cellulosic ethanol. A lot more could be said on the topic, and it would require responses from a research chemist and an infrastructure politics expert (I made that up) to clarify some of the valid issues you raise.
  
Comment by: James Horsler (Jan-29-2009)   

I feel the above article, although well written, is a bit misleading!

a) The problem of transporting hydrogen safely has been solved with metal carbide cylinders. Also, hydrogen could be easily generated by consumers themselves with a solar hydrogen generator!

b) I would disagree about ethanol being a non-toxic chemical. We have enough alcoholics around to prove that!! I think there is enough alcohol in the world and if it was produced from corn/maize then that'll just push food prices up!

c) Yes, there is already an established distribution system which has been controlled by the oil companies for years and they'd be only too pleased for alcohol to be adopted as a fuel supply!! Isn't it time that we concentrated on systems that allowed people to create their own energy very cheaply?? Hydrogen fuel cells would allow that but that wouldn't be popular with the oil industry hey??

Expect others will disagree but that's how I see things.

  
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