Along with carbon fiber and nano technology, graphene may end up being one of the greatest technology breakthroughs of the 21st century. So what exactly is it?
In short, graphene is a series of carbon atoms that have been strung together to form a honeycomb-like structure that is so tightly woven, that no known element can pass through it. It can be manufactured into square meter sheets that are no thicker than an atom, effectively making it one of the few substances on Earth that is two dimensional. It is also, ounce to ounce, a hundred times stronger than steel, and one of the most electrically conductive materials ever made.
Every year scientists come up with dozens of new applications for this technology. Though they may be overshadowed by research currently being done at The University of Manchester. It turns out that graphene may be able to make turn hydrogen into a viable fuel source.
The surprising discovery that protons could breach these materials means that that they could be used in proton-conducting membranes (also known as proton exchange membranes), which are central to the functioning of fuel cells. Fuel cells operate through chemical reactions involving hydrogen fuel and oxygen, with the result being electrical energy. The membranes used in the fuel cells are impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen but allow for the passage of protons.
It is these proton exchange membrane fuel cells that are thought to be the most viable fuel cell design for replacing the internal combustion engine in vehicles. However, the polymer-based membranes that have been used to date suffer from fuel crossover that limits their efficiency and durability.
The implication of this latest research is that graphene and hBN could be used to create a thinner membrane that would be more efficient while reducing fuel crossover and cell poisoning. The end result is that it could give the fuel cell the technological push that it has needed to make hydrogen a viable alternative to fossil fuels.For decades, scientists and inventors have tinkered with ways to run vehicles and generators on hydrogen. However, it has always taken more energy to separate hydrogen from water, than can be gained from burning the hydrogen. But with graphene, it may be possible to extract hydrogen more efficiently. In fact, it may be able to pull hydrogen straight from the humidity in the air.
But what Geim and his colleagues are suggesting with this latest research stands this paradigm on its head. It is conceivable, based on this research, that hydrogen production could be combined with the fuel cell itself to make what would amount to a mobile electric generator fueled simply by hydrogen present in air.
“When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup,” said Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper, in a press release. “You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply a small electric current, and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.”
Lozada-Hidalgo added: “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."It has yet to be seen how efficient this system will be. As it stands now, it still requires some energy to pull this hydrogen out of the air, but the high conductivity of graphene means that it may only require miniscule amounts of electricity for it to work.
If they can figure out a way to efficiently extract hydrogen, then it could change life on Earth for millions of people. It would be possible for you to reliably extract energy from the air, anywhere on earth, any day of the week, 24/7.
Will this replaces fossil fuels? I have my doubts. Even if it works, it sounds like it will only produce small amounts of hydrogen. And many academics have suggested that this breaks the third law of thermodynamics, making this a kind of perpetual motion machine; an impossibility.
However even if it isn't 100 percent efficient, it could still improve the quality of life for millions of people. Let's say that this graphene filter ends up being 90 percent efficient. It pulls the hydrogen out of water molecules and the air, and burns it to fuel its own function, but it still needs a small amount of electricity from another source to operate. Perhaps it could be coupled with a small solar panel, making it completely independent from the grid.
When you burn hydrogen, it combines with oxygen to create water. This material could be provide endless cheap and clean drinking water anywhere on Earth. That by itself could make the world a far better place.
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