Tech Insights

Researchers Investigate the Power of Nanowires in Fuel Cells

September 04, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Using different-thickness nanowires has unlocked new architectures and performance benefits in fuel cells. 

In pursuing cleaner and more efficient energy solutions, scientists and engineers continually explore new materials and technologies. One such innovation is the development of nanowires, one-dimensional conductors with unique properties that can potentially transform various fields, including energy conversion. 


Nanowires are one-dimensional materials.

Nanowires are one-dimensional materials. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock

Recently, a research team from Los Alamos National Laboratory explored the application of nanowires in fuel cells


What Are Nanowires?

Nanowires are electrical conductors made of extremely small, one-dimensional materials.  Because of its small size and high aspect ratio, nanowires exhibit unique physical and chemical properties.

The structure of nanowires enables controlled electron transport, making them highly conductive and sensitive to changes in their environment. This sensitivity is leveraged in various applications, such as sensors, where nanowires can detect minute changes in chemical concentrations. 

In electronics, their small size and high conductivity make them suitable for next-generation transistors and other components, allowing for more compact and energy-efficient devices.


Benefits of Nanowires in Fuel Cells

For fuel cells, nanowires offer some important benefits.

One of the most remarkable benefits of nanowires in fuel cells is the significant improvement in durability they offer. Traditional fuel cells often suffer from degradation, particularly in carbon-based catalyst supports. Nanowires, being less susceptible to corrosion, enhance the lifespan of fuel cells. This increased durability makes fuel cells more suitable for applications that demand long lifetimes and consistent performance.

The unique one-dimensional structure of nanowires also contributes to enhanced fuel cell performance. By facilitating more effective utilization of catalytic materials and enabling rapid oxygen transport, nanowires improve the overall efficiency of fuel cells. They allow for a simplified interfacial structure, reducing transport barriers and leading to more efficient reactions. This enables fuel cells to deliver more power with the same amount of fuel, making them more energy-efficient.

Nanowires also open doors to innovative fuel cell architectures. Their high surface-to-volume ratio and the ability to be precisely engineered allow for the creation of novel electrode designs that can overcome the limitations of traditional structures. By replacing complex interfacial structures with more streamlined arrangements, nanowires enhance the accessibility of active sites, improving reaction kinetics and potentially reducing costs.


Studying Nanowire Electrodes for Fuel Cells at Los Alamos 

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers recently studied nanowire electrodes for fuel cells, focusing on morphological characterization and performance.

Specifically, research focuses on a new type of tiny wire structure called Coaxial Architecture Nanowire Electrodes (CANE). The CANE structure is made up of tiny wires coated with a platinum film, and the researchers examined two variations of this coating with different thicknesses. One of the major findings was that a thicker coating of 7.5 nm made the wires more stable and less prone to bundling together compared to a thinner 5 nm coating.


CANE schematic

CANE schematic. Image used courtesy of Yang et al.

The results showed that thickness also significantly affected fuel cell performance. Fuel cells are complex devices that convert chemical energy into electricity, and their efficiency can be influenced by the materials and design used. The study revealed that the thicker platinum coating led to better fuel cell performance, a finding attributed to the improved structure of the wires, which allowed oxygen to reach the active sites where electricity is generated more easily.

Finally, the CANE design also introduced a new way of arranging components within the fuel cell, replacing a more complex traditional structure with a simpler one. This new arrangement has the potential to lead to more effective utilization of platinum and better overall performance.

By providing insights into the CANE structure and its impact on fuel cell performance, it opens up possibilities for more efficient and durable energy solutions. Understanding how different platinum thicknesses affect the properties of the wires allows researchers to fine-tune the design, optimizing performance.