Notwithstanding all the buzz about renewable energy sources, the dirty facts are that coal accounts for 41% of electricity production worldwide. Since, realistically, coal will be a mainstay of electricity generation for many years to come, research into more environmentally friendly use of coal energy is picking up steam. One technology for more efficient power production centers around the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). Especially gasified carbon fuel cells offer great prospects for the most efficient utilization of a wide variety of carbonaceous solids fuels, including coal, biomass, and municipal solid waste. Researchers have now developed a self-cleaning technique that could allow solid oxide fuel cells to be powered directly by coal gas at operating temperatures as low as 750 degrees Celsius.
The efficiency of catalyzing the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) - the process that breaks the bonds of oxygen molecules - to a large degree determines the electrochemical performance of fuel cells. Platinum and platinum-based composites have long been considered as the most efficient ORR catalysts. In their search for practically viable non-precious metal ORR catalysts, researchers have also been investigating vertically-aligned nitrogen-containing carbon nanotubes. Having a strong electron-withdrawing ability, poly(diallyldimethylammonium chloride) (PDDA) was used to create net positive charge for carbon atoms in the nanotube carbon plane via intermolecular charge transfer. The resultant PDDA functionalized/adsorbed carbon nanotubes were demonstrated to act as metal-free catalysts for oxygen reduction reaction in fuel cells with similar performance as platinum catalysts.
Previous research has shown that high performance piezoelectric ceramics PZT (lead zirconate titanate) could be printed as nanoribbons onto biocompatible and flexible substrates for applications such as harvesting energy from human motion like walking or breathing. While some motions, such as walking, only require flexibility, others, such as breathing, require that the materials be not just flexible but also stretchable. However, the PZT ribbons cannot stand stretching operation modes due to their brittle nature, which leads to cracking. The research team therefore has been looking to overcome this difficulty by fashioning the piezoelectric ribbons into wavy shapes, and integrating them with stretchable silicone rubber, such that the composite material can withstand large amounts of elastic strain.
The particular physical properties that result from their unusual state of matter - they combine the properties of solids and fluids - make hydrogels ideal candidates for a number of applications. Nanoscale colloidally stable particles made from hydrogels are referred to as nanogels and these material systems have many general advantages, such as high transparency, high diffusion rates, high surface area, high dispersion stability, and monodispersity. Researchers in Japan have now proposed a novel photochemical application toward artificial photosynthesis using nanogels as nanogenerators, which evolve hydrogen gas from the internal water induced by irradiation with visible light. Actually, these nanogel systems generated hydrogen gas more efficiently than conventional solution systems.
Traditional anode materials for lithium-ion batteries, like graphite, have a fairly low storage capacity and release rate, so finding alternatives is key to making batteries that last longer and produce more power. Titanium dioxide is regarded as one of the ideal candidates for high-rate anode materials, owing not only to its structural characteristics and special surface activity, but also to its low cost, safety, and relatively low environmental impact. Researchers in Singapore have developed a facile system to fabricate sandwich-like carbon-supported stacked titanium dioxide nanosheets, in which carbon pillars create open channels for fast lithium ion diffusion and the ultrathin framework renders the storage of lithium almost exclusively on the surface. This work provides a new route to design the electrode materials for quick-charging lithium ion batteries.
Nanotechnology researchers working on self-powered nanodevices - nanoscale systems that scavenge energy from their surrounding environment - have been experimenting with various power sources ranging from piezoelectric systems to sound. However, the most abundant energy available in biosystems is chemical and biochemical energy, such as glucose. Researchers in China have now reported a nanowire-based biofuel cell based on a single proton conductive polymer nanowire for converting chemical energy from biofluids into electricity, using glucose oxidase and laccase as catalyst. The output of this biofuel cell is sufficient to drive pH, glucose or photon sensors. The high output power, low cost and easy fabrication process, large-scale manufacturability, high 'on-chip' integrability and stability demonstrates its great potential for in vivo biosensing.
Traditionally, battery materials have been studied with bulk quantities in a complex environment with both active electrode components and many other supporting materials such as polymer binders and conductive additives. Although nanomaterials have been found to be able to improve battery performance, the complexity has made it hard to tell clearly about their advantages. Moreover, it is difficult to know whether fast capacity fading is due to the intrinsic nature of the transport property changes of active nanomaterials or an extrinsic reason from their interactions with the supporting materials, if all of them are studied together. The goal to understand the intrinsic reason of active material capacity fading has motivated a group of researchers to design single nanowire electrochemical devices as an extremely simplified model system to push the fundamental limits of the nanowire materials for energy storage applications. The result is a powerful and effective diagnostic tool for property degradation of lithium ion based energy storage devices.
Imagine cellular phones that can be charged during conversations and sound-insulating walls near highways that generate electricity from the sound of passing vehicles. A number of approaches for self-powering systems by scavenging energy from environments using photovoltaic, thermoelectric, and piezoelectric phenomena have been intensively explored. Among them, very recent innovative research has been intensively carried out to convert external mechanical stimuli such as body movements, heartbeat, blood flow, and ultrasonic wave into electricity, resulting in piezoelectric power-driven wireless self-powered systems. Such a piezoelectric power generation aims to capture the normally wasted energy surrounding a system and converts it into usable energy for operating electrical devices. New work by a nanotechnology research team in Korea has now demonstrated that it is possible to use sound as a power source to drive nanogenerators based on piezoelectric nanowires.