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Professor Mark Wiesner developed the new membrane which uses microscopic iron particles. He teaches civil engineering and environmental engineering at Duke University.  (Source: Duke University)
Duke scientist Wiesner invents a membrane that is cheaper and can operate at higher temperatures and lower humidities than Nafion, the current most widely used membrane, invented in the '60s.

Fuel cells, a promising form of alternative energy, on a most basic level consists of a reaction between hydrogen and another chemical, which can be used to drive electrical current.  Typically, the other chemical is oxygen, which is advantageous in that the byproduct is clean water.  The key element to this process working efficiently is keeping the chemicals in a constant state of proper limited exposure, and often to catalyze the reaction.  To do this, special membranes go between the two gas fuel components.

Fuel cells are advantageous in that they can run for long periods of time and do not require combustion, producing less waste heat.  Their lack of moving parts, in most designs, is another advantage.  These pluses have led to their adoption for use in submarines, remote weather stations, satellites, and other remote applications.

Now researchers at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering developed a breakthrough in membrane technology.  The researchers created a membrane with the key component being iron nanoparticles.  This special new membrane promises higher efficiency.  Furthermore, it should allow fuel cells to operate at lower humidity and, theoretically, at higher temperatures with less degradation.  

The research is being reported in the Journal of Membrane Science.

Mark Wiesner, Ph.D., a Duke civil engineer and senior author of the paper, explains the new membrane's advantages, stating, "The current gold standard membrane is a polymer that needs to be in a humid environment in order to function efficiently.  If the polymer membrane dries out, its efficiency drops. We developed a ceramic membrane made of iron nanoparticles that works at much lower humidity. And because it is a ceramic, it should also tolerate higher temperatures.  If the next series of tests proves that fuel cells with these new membranes perform well at high temperatures, we believe it might attract the type of investment needed to bring this technology to the market."

The current most commonly used membrane, Nafion, was first developed in the 1960s and has changed relatively little since.  This polymeric membrane becomes unstable at high temperatures and loses efficiency due to dehydration.  Nafion membranes are pricey, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the cost of the average system by Wiesner's estimates.  Wiesner's membranes are significantly cheaper to manufacture.

The key to proving his new membrane's value are high-temperature trials, says Wiesner.  Wiesner states, "The efficiency of current membranes drops significantly at temperatures over 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  However, the chemical reactions that create the electricity are more efficient at high temperatures, so it would be a big improvement for fuel cell technology to make this advance."

Wiesner and his team aren't done yet, however.  The extremely pure water produced from the reactions is no longer needed to humidify the cell, thus it can be removed and used for other purposes. Wiesner and his team are also tinkering with the membrane's fabrication to try to make it more flexible and more durable.  



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Did I read that right?
By nvalhalla on 3/19/2008 5:46:44 PM , Rating: 5
The Journal of Membrane Science?

Are you F'in kidding me?




RE: Did I read that right?
By Darkskypoet on 3/19/2008 10:16:21 PM , Rating: 2
That was exactly my thought. :) +1


RE: Did I read that right?
By csmark on 3/20/2008 1:06:43 PM , Rating: 2
Membrane research is a huge area of research. Well, that may be overstating it a bit. Membranes are hugely important in manufacturing for many reasons including separating charged particles to create energy. In an area of research that I keep tabs on they study the use of membranes made from bacteria. Sounds crazy I know. But the bacteria are cheap to produce (they grow well in culture) and their membranes have highly unique properties. Obviously the major issue is lack of durability. A lot of membrane surface can be produced in a short time. Just something else to think about.


RE: Did I read that right?
By Orbs on 3/25/2008 4:52:22 PM , Rating: 2
Insane in the membrane... insane in the brain!


By Etsp on 3/19/2008 5:23:54 PM , Rating: 5
I've been reading a lot about scientific breakthroughs lately, and usually the difference revolves around the utilization of some rare or hard to process material. This sounds quite promising, as iron is relatively easy to come by, and humanity has been processing it for centuries. Let's hope it can provide the promised benefits!




By alp689 on 3/19/2008 6:02:33 PM , Rating: 2
Definitely going to agree there. If any kind of breakthrough is going to be practical, it needs to be with something that is fairly readily available.

Between this, and all the stuff that's being done with carbon nanotubes (and from what was posted in a DT article a week or two ago, they just discovered a way to produce CNT's much more easily), it's very promising indeed.


Civil engineer ??
By phxfreddy on 3/24/2008 8:57:19 AM , Rating: 2
Somethings wrong here. The guys a civil engineer. They are the girlie men of engineering. They do slump tests with cement...not develop new membranes for fuel cells. Wonder which grad student actually did?




Go Duke!
By JBird7986 on 3/19/2008 5:27:58 PM , Rating: 1
Is it just me, or is Duke the one coming forward with most of the breakthroughs these days? First the "cloaking device," now this!

On a more serious note, the one thing that could make this work really well would be a catalyst to get hydrogen from water.

P.S.: Note of bias:

I'm a member of the Duke University Class of 2008.




Go Duke
By morked on 3/19/2008 8:58:07 PM , Rating: 1
GO BLUE DEVILS!!! :)




should've happened sooner...
By jlips6 on 3/19/08, Rating: -1
RE: should've happened sooner...
By acejj26 on 3/19/2008 5:54:27 PM , Rating: 3
because that's not the government's job?


RE: should've happened sooner...
By jlips6 on 3/19/2008 6:12:00 PM , Rating: 2
If you are being sarcastic, I salute you
If not, it is the governments job to give grants for important discoveries. While granting grants is not specifically stated in the constitution, I bet we could find a lawyer to cook up why it's supported by the elastic clause. :)


RE: should've happened sooner...
By AmishElvis on 3/19/2008 6:31:36 PM , Rating: 3
If you are not being sarcastic, I salute you. I'm tired of whiny liberals hanging off the government teat.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By bupkus on 3/19/2008 8:07:59 PM , Rating: 1
It's not the government's job when we say it's not the government's job. Who died and left you God?


RE: should've happened sooner...
By jlips6 on 3/19/2008 10:02:11 PM , Rating: 2
when we say? that sounds more like you think the government shouldn't give out grants. The government is responsible for handing out grants, and it says so itself. Why again do you not want your tax dollars to go to something useful?


RE: should've happened sooner...
By jlips6 on 3/19/2008 10:06:08 PM , Rating: 1
sir! I am most offended! I pride myself on being a whiny liberal! This may suprise you, but I actually am liberal. What's really strange is that all the traits which are supposed to belong to the republicans on the news are never brought up here. They are arguing points which are considered liberal, which I guess is appropriate since liberal is a part of the political spectrum and republican is a political party. Nowadays the phrases are so mixed you can't help but slur them.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By masher2 (blog) on 3/19/2008 6:21:08 PM , Rating: 3
> "but why hasn't the government been offering some grants to improve the fuel cell if the oil crisis is so huge? "

First of all, a fuel cell isn't a source of energy. The fuel within it is...but where does one get the energy within that fuel?

Fossil fuels have their energy "built in". But a hydrogen-based fuel cell requires one to produce hydrogen. The normal process today is steam-reformation of natural gas (itself a fossil fuel). There are several alternative routes (up to simply splitting water itself) but all of them require massive energy inputs.

Secondly, the oil crisis is -- while certainly very real -- not quite as large as the media might lead you to believe. Less than five years ago, I read countless articles on how $100/bbl oil would be the death of the nation. Today, oil's brushing $110, and we seem to still be doing just fine.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By Rugar on 3/19/2008 7:36:15 PM , Rating: 3
Here's an interesting analysis I heard the other day that puts oil prices in an interesting light:

If you look back to the year 2000 and adjust prices to 2006 dollars (they used this because the WSJ has a nice history of oil prices adjusted to 2006 dollars), then an ounce of gold (at ~$300/oz) would buy you roughly 10 barrels of oil (at ~$30/bbl). If you look at today, an ounce of gold (at ~$1000/oz) would buy you roughly 10 barrels of oil (at $100/bbl). The argument was that the value of these commodities has remained stable in comparison to each other and that the "high prices" we are seeing have more to do with a weakening dollar than with a shortage in supply.

Just interesting to consider.


By InternetGeek on 3/19/2008 8:05:00 PM , Rating: 3
So basically, what you're saying is that our incomes have not kept up in relation to what commodities cost these days. Which is why we're all feeling these new prices.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By MadMaster on 3/19/2008 8:38:09 PM , Rating: 2
However, 6 dollars used to get you 150 miles (in a 25 mpg car). Now it only gets you 50 miles.

That's a stupid/crappy/retarded analysis. Taking the government index of inflation into account, oil is the most expensive it has ever been.

Also, the reason gold is expensive is because of a rush to commodities by investors because everything else is doing crappy (sub-prime mortgage, etc. but could be improving right now). Historically, gold has been a crappy index for inflation (for a whole multitude of reasons, and only retard economists use it as a index for inflation).

I have to say the Saudis/OPEC are right this time, there is plenty of oil on the market and there is no justification for more. Oil is currently overpriced (but I personally think this is a good thing...but that's another argument).

If prices remain here, at 80-110 dollars, the economy will do okay. (not great)

However, prices are guaranteed to go past 80-110 in the near future (2-5 years). We're talking in the $200-300/bbl. Or $6-10/gallon. Our economy will not be able to brush off those economic effects (at least, not yet).

One simple fact, everybody (from the Chinese, to the USA) is depending on the Saudi's for future oil. The Saudi's are pumping (lots) of water out of all of their oil fields. Basically, when that happens, it is beginning of the end of any oil field. Say goodbye to cheap gas.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By masher2 (blog) on 3/19/2008 9:37:16 PM , Rating: 3
> "That's a stupid/crappy/retarded analysis."

It's actually a fairly astute one. Oil is a world commodity, and sellers don't care why the US debased its currency with poor fiscal policy. If the dollar declines, oil prices rise.

Certainly increased demand is bumping up prices, but the fact remains that a fistfull of Euros buys a lot more oil nowadays than the same amount of dollars. Other nations have seen far smaller relative price increases.

> "We're talking in the $200-300/bbl"

Barring a major war, I can safely say $300/bbl oil is out of the question in the 5-year timeframe. As the price rises, too many other alternatives become economic. The Fischer-Tropsch process alone becomes viable at about $200/bbl.

> "Say goodbye to cheap gas. "

I remember people saying the same thing in the early 1980s. Then what happened? Gas prices went down, way down...and stayed there for more than a decade.

The same thing will happen again. Prices will rise a bit more, then the resultant overexpansion will depress prices sharply....then in another couple of decades, the cycle will repeat, with prices rising even higher.

We never seem to learn from history.


By Darkskypoet on 3/19/2008 10:46:42 PM , Rating: 2
I gotta agree with Masher2 here, and the first poster to bring up the gold --> oil link. One must take the dollar price of anything with a grain of salt, and a pinch of reality. However, most floating currencies have taken a beating vs gold, and so there is obviously an over valuing of gold at this point, much like there is an over valuing of oil futures. The market runs to what it believes is safe... and much like a raft, that which might have been safe, starts to tip when too many crowd into it, overestimating its safety and stability.

A cyclic correction should occur in oil and gold. However, the basic point that the dollar has been in a flat out sprint to the bottom is accurate.

(as a side note, *Genuine Question follows* How many JP Morganites are laughing their asses off over buying Bear Stearns for under 4% of its market value?)


RE: should've happened sooner...
By MadMaster on 3/20/2008 12:06:38 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
> "That's a stupid/crappy/retarded analysis."

It's actually a fairly astute one. Oil is a world commodity, and sellers don't care why the US debased its currency with poor fiscal policy. If the dollar declines, oil prices rise.

Certainly increased demand is bumping up prices, but the fact remains that a fistfull of Euros buys a lot more oil nowadays than the same amount of dollars. Other nations have seen far smaller relative price increases.


Missed the point, I was talking about the analysis comparing the price of oil to gold and how that's an economic indicator. You're in a whole other world.

quote:
Barring a major war, I can safely say $300/bbl oil is out of the question in the 5-year timeframe. As the price rises, too many other alternatives become economic. The Fischer-Tropsch process alone becomes viable at about $200/bbl.


The Fischer-Tropsch process depends heavily on the price of natural gas, which is also closely related to the price of oil. Not to mention the astronomical capitol costs...

quote:
I remember people saying the same thing in the early 1980s. Then what happened? Gas prices went down, way down...and stayed there for more than a decade.

The same thing will happen again. Prices will rise a bit more, then the resultant overexpansion will depress prices sharply....then in another couple of decades, the cycle will repeat, with prices rising even higher.


Here's a list of things that have changed since 1980...
- About 700 Billion barrels of a finite resource (oil) has been used
- Many remaining supergiant oilfield have peaked. The ones that are left are very difficult to get to.
- Billions of dollars has been spent on oil infrastructures to keep production flat.
- Oil demand has gone up from 62 million barrels per day to currently 82 million barrels per day.
- The USA went from producing 10 million barrels a day to currently about 5 million barrels per day. (We actually import oil from Russia)

You're argument is akin to "Well, it didn't rain yesterday, so it must not rain today." A dumb way to argue because every day is different...


RE: should've happened sooner...
By masher2 (blog) on 3/20/2008 5:12:08 AM , Rating: 3
> "The Fischer-Tropsch process depends heavily on the price of natural gas, which is also closely related to the price of oil. Not to mention the astronomical capitol costs...

Heavily tied? Stuff and nonsense. The price of oil has risen 500% in the price five years. But natural gas prices have only risen about 200% since the 2002 average and in fact prices today are **less* than they were in January 2001:

http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/hist/n9190us3m.ht...

There is a mild relationship between the two, for the very reason I stated in my first post -- when oil prices rise, some consumer can switch to natural gas. And when natural gas prices rise, many consumers can switch to coal.

As for "astronomical" capital costs, if the Germans could manage to build plants to do it in WW2, I'm pretty confident we can afford them today.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By vgermax on 3/20/2008 10:42:10 AM , Rating: 2
If you do some hunting around the net, you'll find most of the major oil companies are involved in setting up gas-to-liquid (aka Fischer-Tropsch) plants throughout the middle east. Based on some preliminary analysis I ran last year, the average fully loaded cost per barrel of FT fuel would've been in the range of $80-90 using spot natural gas prices at the time, and published capital, and operating costs for an FT plant.

More to the point, the professor overstates the cost contribution of Nafion to the cost of a fuel cell. In terms of raw material, the platinum (or platinum/rhodium) electrodes are a sizable contributor to the costs. When you get down to it though, the manufacturing costs likely override the materials costs pretty significantly at this point. The fuel cell has not been developed to the point of mass manufacturability.


By masher2 (blog) on 3/20/2008 10:50:21 AM , Rating: 2
> "you'll find most of the major oil companies are involved in setting up gas-to-liquid (aka Fischer-Tropsch) plants throughout the middle east."

We should be doing that here in the US, using some of our massive coal reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But sadly, such plants would never get environmental approval here.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By masher2 (blog) on 3/20/2008 5:20:17 AM , Rating: 2
> " About 700 Billion barrels of a finite resource (oil) has been used [since 1980]

In 1980, world oil reserves stood at 648B barrels. Today, world oil reserves are much **higher** -- up to 1000B barrels. That means since 1980, we've found 1.5 new barrels for every barrel we burned .

In the 1970s, I remember teachers telling us we would be "out" of oil in less than 30 years. Totally out -- all the pumps dry. And yet today, 35 years later, reserves are the highest in history....and the recent price hike has led to a surge in new exploration, with a couple new fields being found just in the past year.

All the way back to the first World War, people have been predicting oil was about to run out. In fact, President Coolidge convened an emergency council, based on advice from "experts" who claimed the world would run out of oil by 1930.

You'd think people would learn. Oil will run out eventually...but not in our lifetimes.



RE: should've happened sooner...
By BansheeX on 3/20/2008 12:47:21 PM , Rating: 2
As the dollar devalues and foreigners no longer subsidize our inflationary economy, people elsewhere in the world become wealthier relative to us. Products like oil that were once going largely to borrow-and-spend Americans will start going to productive consumers in other countries like China. Because you're right, it's a finite resource, and everyone is vying for it.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By MadMaster on 3/20/2008 7:25:01 PM , Rating: 2
Arguing from ignorance again... Because a lot of those 'increases' are just OPEC countries not reporting declines.

Take a look at this...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves#Suspicio...

Also, scroll up and you'll see the difference between proven, probably, and possible. OPEC countries report all 3. They have significant motivation to do so, 1. Alternatives are not found, 2. Countries are willing to invest in their country and 3. The higher their reserves, the more oil they are aloud to pump.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By masher2 (blog) on 3/20/2008 8:07:28 PM , Rating: 2
> "Take a look at this..."

Quoting Wikipedia again? This is the first thing I saw in that article:

quote:
an interview to Bloomberg in July 2006, [Dr. Bakhtiari] stated that world oil production is now at its peak...
And yet, one year later after this "peak", world oil production was substantially higher, all the way up to 80.25M bb/day. So much for that expert.

I've been around long enough to remember almost two dozen predicted world peaks. None ever came to pass...but people never learn.

Forget the fact that known recoverable reserves have gone UP every year since the early 1960s. Even taking all the conspiracy theories about OPEC overstating its reserves as true, the fact remains we've found less than half of all the total oil on the planet. Much less. Most of the pelagic ocean, the Arctic Circle are fully unexplored, and vast areas in countries such as Russia haven't been prospected either.

That said, oil WILL eventually peak. And I can tell you exactly when it will happen. Production will decline as soon as prices rise to the point where other alternatives are more economic -- just as every other peak in history has happened. Production will decline when DEMAND drops...not vice versa. There will be no "crisis"....just an easy switchover to alternatives.

What year will it be? Hard to say, but I can promise you it won't be in my lifetime. Maybe yours, if you're extremely young.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By MadMaster on 3/21/2008 1:02:08 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
And yet, one year later after this "peak", world oil production was substantially higher, all the way up to 80.25M bb/day. So much for that expert.


Are you sure? How do you know?

Did you know that EVERY published number on world oil production is different, significantly different.

The issue with predicting exactly when it is is nobody knows exactly how much oil is produced. The statistics that are publishes are all off, and not good numbers. We could already be in peak, but nobody knows for sure. This is the speculation that caused the recent run up in price...

quote:
That said, oil WILL eventually peak. And I can tell you exactly when it will happen. Production will decline as soon as prices rise to the point where other alternatives are more economic -- just as every other peak in history has happened. Production will decline when DEMAND drops...not vice versa. There will be no "crisis"....just an easy switchover to alternatives.


You also misunderstand something here. The supply demand curve...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supply_demand_curve

We know demand is going way up. As time passes, supply tends to go down (even with massive investment, it goes down, take the USA for example 1000+ drilling rigs...).

What happens? High prices. What alternatives are there? Nothing that will really cut into demand for 10 years.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By jlips6 on 3/19/2008 10:11:06 PM , Rating: 2
I never said the fuel cell was a source of fuel, nor did I say that the oil crisis would bring doom upon us all. I meant the government should give grants to alternative methods for power rather than petrolium. Sorry for the misconception, although I guess the -1 rating eliminates need for an apology.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By seraphim1982 on 3/20/2008 9:59:49 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Secondly, the oil crisis is -- while certainly very real -- not quite as large as the media might lead you to believe. Less than five years ago, I read countless articles on how $100/bbl oil would be the death of the nation. Today, oil's brushing $110, and we seem to still be doing just fine.


That seems kinda of ignorant if you ask me. "Doing just fine" ... on the verge of economic depression. Escalating fuel costs + 12 Billion Dollar/day war ... makes a nation go broke. Of course those aren't the only reasons, but primary.

Also, it should be the Governments job to provide funding for new discoveries. Things are eventually going to be discovered, yet if your country gets these ideas, patents, technology, it gives them and the their companies an advantage over other countries and their companies. A prime example is WW2 and the nuclear bomb. Although the idea probably isn't mass desctruction these days, it should point out that government investment in technology pays off.


By masher2 (blog) on 3/20/2008 10:37:03 AM , Rating: 2
> " Of course those aren't the only reasons, but primary."

No. The primary reason is very simple -- the Fed set the price of credit too low for too long. Cheap credit and poor oversight of government-insured lenders created a housing bubble, and now the bubble has burst. In less than a year, the Fed has had to pump some $400B into the markets, mortgage lenders have been forced to write off hundreds of billions more, dozens of major lenders have gone bankrupt, and no end is yet in sight.

> "Escalating fuel costs + 12 Billion Dollar/day war"

A large part of our escalating fuel costs are due to devaluation of the dollar...brought on in large part by the housing bubble described above.

And your costs for the Iraq War are far overboard also. The current total is $600B, which works out to an average of $320M/day.


RE: should've happened sooner...
By tmouse on 3/20/2008 9:49:38 AM , Rating: 2
The Government rarely "offers grant money" for ANY specific purpose. Individuals submit proposals for projects, they are then peer reviewed and the available monies are then distributed. There has been monies available for alternate energy for quite a while as a matter of fact Dr. Wiesner has had many government grants dating form the 90's (when he was at Rice)on.


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