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Nanotech Energizes Hydrogen Fuel Cells

By Matthew Burns
For decades, the world has relied primarily on hydrocarbons for fuel, developing a dependence that has caused political upheaval and environmental pollution. Nanotechnology might be able to minimize those global problems, Dr. Xiangwu Zhang says, simply by replacing hydrocarbons with hydrogen made by using carbon.
Clean-burning hydrogen energy is seen by many as the gold standard for future U.S. energy policy. It would reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil and slash greenhouse-gas emissions. Producing energy from hydrogen easily and cheaply has been the primary obstacle, but Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science at NC State, believes carbon nanofibers can solve that production problem and help store the energy.
Fuel cells
By combining additives with nanofibers, Zhang has created lithium-ion batteries that can store energy for longer periods. Photos by Roger Winstead.
Zhang – a materials scientist by training – and his research team are synthesizing the nanofibers by electrospinning polyacrynitrile polymer and platinum salt. The resulting carbon filaments are covered with platinum nanoparticles and can be made into nonwoven fabrics and used as electrode layers in a hydrogen fuel cell. The platinum acts as a catalyst, he says, separating electrons from hydrogen atoms so they can be discharged as electricity. The carbon nanofibers transport the electrons out of the fuel cell, but more importantly, their large surface area provides a base for the chemical reaction to occur.
Zhang is testing several fabrication methods to maximize the surface area on the nanofibers without trapping the platinum particles inside the carbon matrix, where they can't produce a chemical reaction. The small fuel cells his team has built have only enough juice to run an electric clock or small appliance, so they are trying to scale up the science – without a proportional increase in cost – to a point where the device could power a car.

New System Converts Sun’s Energy into Hydrogen Fuel

January 15, 2014
new system designed by researchers at UNC and NC State converts the sun’s energy into hydrogen fuel and stores it for later use.
Solar energy has long been used as a clean alternative to fossil fuels such as coal and oil, but it could only be harnessed during the day when the sun’s rays were strongest. Now researchers led by Tom Meyer at the Energy Frontier Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have built a system that converts the sun’s energy not into electricity but hydrogen fuel and stores it for later use, allowing us to power our devices long after the sun goes down.
“So called ‘solar fuels’ like hydrogen offer a solution to how to store energy for nighttime use by taking a cue from natural photosynthesis,” said Meyer, Arey Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Our new findings may provide a last major piece of a puzzle for a new way to store the sun’s energy – it could be a tipping point for a solar energy future.”