Could our future cars be powered by methanol fuel cells, rather than gasoline engines or electric batteries? Perhaps. The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) is making the oil alternative more viable by developing a fast, simple way of producing platinum "nano-raspberries," which contain tiny clusters of nanoparticles. Each tiny piece of matter, measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers, acts as a catalyst inside fuel cells to help convert liquid methanol into electricity. The clusters are called nano-raspberries because of their fruit-like shape, and they're particularly effective due to their high surface area.
NIST's process uses water as a solvent to make the nano-raspberries in roughly 40 minutes. The team tried a number of solvent alternatives, including methanol, ethanol and isopropanol, to see how they affected the production of "nano-grapes," which are formed from large clumps of nano-raspberries. These bunches, if they grow too large, can reduce their catalytic properties, and it's this part of NIST's research that the team says is most valuable. In short, it's not just the nanoparticle material that scientists should be worried about -- it's also the solvent they're paired with. The hope is that their test methods will now be replicated to discover new, alternative solvent and nano-raspberry combinations. After all, platinum isn't exactly the cheapest material to use inside fuel cells.
[Image Credit: Curtin/NIST]