Graphene May Double Solar Cell Power, Harvest Hydrogen From Air


Graphene paper. Image: Lisa Aliosio

Graphene paper. Image: Lisa Aliosio

As tough global emissions standards put more pressure on carmakers to produce larger numbers of zero-emission vehicles, the race is on to improve systems of electricity generation and storage.

Graphene is a graphite-like substance first isolated in 2004. Some analysts view it as useful in improving the efficiency of batteries, but now it appears graphene could be useful in other green technologies.

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The material could be used to harvest hydrogen from air, as well as improve the efficiency of solar cells and hydrogen fuel cells, according to a new report from CNN that describes a study published in the journal Nature.

Graphene has the same atomic structure as the graphite found in pencils, but those atoms form two-dimensional crystal structures that researchers believe could form the basis for efficient hydrogen-harvesting membranes.

2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car, Newport Beach, CA, Nov 2014

2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car, Newport Beach, CA, Nov 2014

Scientists from Manchester University in the U.K. posit that a thin membrane of graphene could be used to separate hydrogen gas from air using electricity. This could provide a clean source of hydrogen to power fuel-cell cars--lowering their overall environmental impact.

The fuel cells in those cars could also potentially benefit from graphene.

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The same researchers found that a fuel-cell membrane made from the material allowed hydrogen protons to more easily pass through, increasing efficiency.

Graphene is also viewed as potentially useful in solar cells.

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Researchers at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Spain claim graphene can produce multiple electrons for each photon of sunlight it absorbs--generating proportionally more electricity than the 1:1 ratio of photons to electrons silicon cells are limited to.

While the use of graphene in solar cells is still just theoretical, researchers estimate that the material could yield 60 percent solar-cell efficiency--roughly double that of the most efficient silicon cells.

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Of course, while these uses of graphene sound promising in theory, they're still a long way from real-world applications.

It usually takes many years of development for new technologies to progress from lab experiments into commercial products--and many don't make it out of the lab at all.

[hat tip: Douglas Kerr]

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