How Graphene Could Turn Air Into Energy
Researchers from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom have discovered a new way to use graphene to turn air, or hydrogen in the air, into usable energy. Of course, this technology is still years away from being commercially viable, so don't expect to see air-based generators anytime soon.
The team published their report in Nature, an international journal of science, and it describes the process behind the technology. The graphene is worked into a membrane-like structure, which can be used to sieve hydrogen out of the air. In this way, they could use the technology to create generators that are powered by burning hydrogen.
But graphene is not exactly what you'd call a well-known material. Researchers have been working with it for years, and it will take many more to come up with something truly viable. It was first isolated back in 2004 by another team from Manchester University, and since then, they have been continuously working to broaden their understanding of it.
Graphene is one atom thick, which means it’s one of the thinnest and lightest materials on the planet. It is a two-dimensional crystal, the first in scientific history actually, and its properties are what make it so promising. Graphene is thin, light and remarkably strong, so strong, in fact, that it is both harder than diamond and about 200 times stronger than steel. It’s impermeable to gasses and liquids, despite its size. In addition, it is transparent, incredibly flexible and works extremely well as a conductor, even better than copper.
Furthermore, silicone has been called the next generation semiconductor because it offers many benefits over other materials. If the recent discoveries about graphene are true, however, it would take the cake, especially considering how conductive it is.
With all of those benefits, it’s impossible to shrug away the incredible potential of this material. Just imagine what wearable technology, mobile technology and the future of technology as a whole have to gain from a substance like this. It’s so thin and transparent, it could theoretically be used to attach paper-thin interactive displays to pretty much anything, even fabric.
Modern fuel-cell technology calls for membrane-based cells which trigger a reaction between oxygen and hydrogen as a fuel, and then convert chemical energy into usable electricity. During the process, these membranes separate the protons, and that is essentially what creates the energy. However, with traditional fuel cells, there is a pretty high rate of inefficiency because some of that fuel can leak across the proton membranes, becoming lost or contaminated.
By using graphene to create the membranes, those fuel cells could become extra efficient by stopping that leakage, generating more power. Plus, due to their makeup, they would also be more durable.
During the Manchester University study, researchers found that protons passed through the graphene membranes just fine. The aforementioned process can be augmented to harvest hydrogen from the air, generating usable electricity. Co-author of the study, Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo describes it in more detail:
'When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup. You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.
We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is, of course, tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort.'
Dr Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author in this work, added: “It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square meter sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later”.