Fuel CellNitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes or modified graphene nanoribbons could be effective, less costly replacements for expensive platinum in fuel cells, according to a new study.

In fuel cells, platinum is used for fast oxygen reduction, the key reaction that transforms chemical energy into electricity.

The findings come from computer simulations scientists created to see how carbon nanomaterials could be improved for fuel-cell cathodes. Their study reveals the atom-level mechanisms by which doped nanomaterials catalyze oxygen reduction reactions (ORR).

Doping with nitrogen

Boris Yakobson, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry at Rice University, and his colleagues are among many researchers looking for a way to speed up ORR for fuel cells, which were discovered in the 19th century but not widely used until the latter part of the 20th. Fuel cells have since powered transportation modes ranging from cars and buses to spacecraft.


Chemical Heritage FoundationECS members M. Stanley Whittingham and Yury Gogotsi will be panelists at the upcoming “Electrical Energy Storage Technologies That Enable the Future” symposium, hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The event will take place on January 11, 2018 in Philadelphia, PA. Read the full program below.

Daryl Boudreaux, Principal, Boudreaux & Associates

M. Stanley Whittingham, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, SUNY Binghamton

Yury Gogotsi, Distinguished University Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Drexel University


A new flexible, transparent electrical device inspired by electric eels could lead to body-friendly power sources for implanted health monitors and medication dispensers, augmented-reality contact lenses, and countless other applications, researchers report.

The soft cells—made of hydrogel and salt—form the first potentially biocompatible artificial electric organ that generates more than 100 volts. It produces a steady buzz of electricity at high voltage but low current, a bit like an extremely low-volume but high-pressure jet of water. It could be enough to power a small medical device like a pacemaker.

While the technology is preliminary, Michael Mayer, a professor of biophysics at the Adolphe Merkle Institute of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and the paper’s corresponding author, believes it may one day be useful for powering implantable or wearable devices without the toxicity, bulk, or frequent recharging that come with batteries.


Poplar treeNew research indicates that poplar trees could be an economically viable biofuel material.

In the quest to produce affordable biofuels, poplars are one of the Pacific Northwest’s best bets—the trees are abundant, fast-growing, adaptable to many terrains, and their wood can become substances used in biofuel and high-value chemicals that we rely on in our daily lives.

But even as researchers test poplars’ potential to morph into everything from ethanol to chemicals in cosmetics and detergents, a commercial-scale processing plant for poplars has yet to be achieved. This is mainly because production costs still are not competitive with the current price of oil.

Now, a team of researchers is trying to make poplar a viable competitor by testing the production of younger poplar trees that could be harvested more frequently—after only two or three years—instead of the usual 10- to 20-year cycle.


By: Joshua M. Pearce, Michigan Technological University

EnergyWithin the next month, energy watchers expect the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to act on an order from Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would create new pricing rules for certain power plants that can store fuel on site to support grid resilience. This initiative seeks to protect coal-fired and nuclear power plants that are struggling to compete with cheaper energy sources.

Perry’s proposed rule applies to plants that operate in regions with deregulated power markets, where utilities normally compete to deliver electricity at the lowest price. To qualify, plants would have to keep a 90-day fuel supply on site. Each qualified plant would be allowed to “recover its fully allocated costs.”

In other words, plant owners would be able to charge enough to cover a range of costs, including operating costs, costs of capital and debt, and investor returns. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Neil Chatterjee has stated that the extra money to keep coal and nuclear plants running “would come from customers in that region, who need the reliability.”


GridEngineers have developed a 4-in-1 smart utilities plant that produces electricity, water, air-conditioning, and heat in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way.

The eco-friendly system harvests waste energy and is suitable for building clusters and underground cities, especially those in the tropics.

“Currently, significant amount of energy is required for the generation of electricity, water, air-conditioning, and heat. Running four independent processes also result in extensive energy wastage, and such systems take up a huge floor area,” says Ernest Chua, associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering.

“With our smart plant, these processes are carefully integrated together such that waste energy can be harvested for useful output. Overall, this novel approach could cut energy usage by 25 to 30 percent and the 4-in-1 plant is also less bulky.

“Users can also enjoy cheaper and a more resilient supply of utilities.”


BatteryCapitalizing on tiny defects can improve electrodes for lithium-ion batteries, new research suggests.

In a study on lithium transport in battery cathodes, researchers found that a common cathode material for lithium-ion batteries, olivine lithium iron phosphate, releases or takes in lithium ions through a much larger surface area than previously thought.

“We know this material works very well but there’s still much debate about why,” says Ming Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University. “In many aspects, this material isn’t supposed to be so good, but somehow it exceeds people’s expectations.”

Part of the reason, Tang says, comes from point defects—atoms misplaced in the crystal lattice—known as antisite defects. Such defects are impossible to completely eliminate in the fabrication process. As it turns out, he says, they make real-world electrode materials behave very differently from perfect crystals.


Just a few weeks after France vowed to get gasoline and diesel powered cars off the road by 2040, Australia has joined in on the conversation of transportation transformation. According to a statement, Queensland is looking to kick off an electric vehicle revolution with the implementation of an “electric super highway.”

The highway will incorporate 18 towns and cities in Australia. Officials expect the highway to be completed within the next six months, stretching 1,240 miles along the Queensland’s east coast loaded with 18 fast-charging stations that can charge a car in 30 minutes, allowing electric vehicle drivers to make it from the state’s southern border to the far north.

“EVs can provide not only a reduced fuel cost for Queenslanders, but an environmentally-friendly transport option, particularly when charged from renewable energy,” says Environment Minister and Acting Main Roads Minister Steven Miles. “The Queensland Electric Super Highway has the potential to revolutionize the way we travel around Queensland in the future.”


By: Amy Myers Jaffe, University of California, Davis and Lewis Fulton, University of California, Davis

Electric VehiclesWhen will cars powered by gas-guzzling internal combustion engines become obsolete? Not as soon as it seems, even with the latest automotive news out of Europe.

First, Volvo announced it would begin to phase out the production of cars that run solely on gasoline or diesel by 2019 by only releasing new models that are electric or plug-in hybrids. Then, France and the U.K. declared they would ban sales of gas and diesel-powered cars by 2040. Underscoring this trend is data from Norway, as electric models amounted to 42 percent of Norwegian new car sales in June.

European demand for oil to propel its passenger vehicles has been falling for years. Many experts expect a sharper decline in the years ahead as the shift toward electric vehicles spreads across the world. And that raises questions about whether surging electric vehicle sales will ultimately cause the global oil market, which has grown on average by 1 to 2 percent a year for decades and now totals 96 million barrels per day, to decline after hitting a ceiling.

Energy experts call this concept “peak oil demand.” We are debating when and if this will occur.


Solar PanelResearchers have created a concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) system with embedded microtracking that is capable of producing 50 percent more energy per day than the standard silicon solar cells.

“Solar cells used to be expensive, but now they’re getting really cheap,” says Chris Giebink, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State.

“As a result, the solar cell is no longer the dominant cost of the energy it produces. The majority of the cost increasingly lies in everything else—the inverter, installation labor, permitting fees, etc.—all the stuff we used to neglect,” he says.

This changing economic landscape has put a premium on high efficiency. In contrast to silicon solar panels, which currently dominate the market at 15 to 20 percent efficiency, concentrating photovoltaics focus sunlight onto smaller, but much more efficient solar cells like those used on satellites, to enable overall efficiencies of 35 to 40 percent.


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