You're going to have to think very small to understand something that has the potential to be very big. A team of researchers, including Kyle Brinkman of Clemson University, developed a material that acts as a superhighway for ions. The material could make batteries more powerful, change how gaseous fuel is turned into liquid fuel and help power plants burn coal and natural gas more efficiently. The team reported its findings in Nature Communications.
Ye Lin, Shumin Fang and Fanglin Chen, all of the University of South Carolina, collaborated with Brinkman and Dong Su, who is with the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.
Batteries and fuel cells have done some great stuff, but they are limited by how fast ions pass through the electrolyte. If you speed up the ions, you'll have a more powerful battery or fuel cell. The challenge for engineers is finding a mix of electrolyte ingredients that allows the ions to move as quickly as possible. Members of the research team sharpened their focus on ceria doped with with gadolinia. It's not something you buy at the local convenience store, but it's a substance well-known to materials scientists and engineers.
Seen through a highly powerful microscope, the material looks like a chessboard with many particles, or "grains," jammed together. Those grains are made of gadolinia-doped ceria, and ions zip through the grains with ease.
But there was a problem. Gadolinia tends to accumulate at the boundaries of those tiny grains, slowing down the ions. The research team figured out that adding cobalt iron oxide to the mix cleaned out the gadolinium that had accumulated in the grain boundaries. With the new ingredient, ions had clear sailing through the electrolyte en route to their rendezvous with the electrons.
It's great for turning chemical energy into electrical power, which could result in more powerful batteries and fuel cells. But that's not all.
Cleaning out the boundaries allowed eased movement of oxygen ions, which helps create pure oxygen. So the same material that enhances power could also be used to create membrane systems that purify gas mixtures.
It could mean that oxygen will replace steam in the process used to turn fuels into liquid, including the gasoline you put in your car. Pure oxygen is also an ideal environment for fire, so it could be used to help burn coal and natural gas.