2-D materials as the next generation membranes in hydrogen generation and low temperature fuel cells.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Chem Eng and Analytical Science


Fuel cells have been promoted as a pollution free alternative for energy generation when converting hydrogen into electricity. There are several constraints which have limited the implementation of this technology and this proposal addresses all of the major problems.

To make hydrogen requires energy and using conventional methods requires electricity to electrolyse water, if the electricity comes from fossil fuels then the problem is simply moved rather than solved. To use renewable energy requires electrolysers where the energy intermittently generated by the source (wind, solar, tidal etc) is converted into hydrogen at source by an on-site Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) Electrolyser. The problem with PEM electrolysers is that the membrane used needs to be thick to prevent hydrogen mixing with oxygen to form an explosive mixture but the thickness of the membrane reduces efficiency.

Similar problems manifest themselves in fuel cells, the conversion of hydrogen back into electricity requires a PEM fuel cell, the membrane is the same as in the electrolyser and again needs to be thick to prevent fuel crossover but this again reduces efficiency. A third technology, the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) was developed to address the problems around hydrogen storage but again the membrane is the same and again thickness and fuel crossover constrain the efficacy of the membrane.

In this work we intend to take the properties of the graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) which have been proven to allow protons to pass but prevent all other transport of materials and apply them to the three technologies discussed. The materials challenges around the manufacture of a defect free barrier membrane will be tackled with the added benefit of utilising the expensive platinum catalyst more efficiently.

The potential benefit of this work is that hydrogen production will become more efficient and the cost of converting the fuel into electricity in a fuel cell will decrease as the overall cost of the fuel cell is reduced. This will make viable the use of 'green hydrogen' as an energy storage medium and enable the route to market for PEM fuel cells which are necessary to convert the hydrogen (and other fuels such as methanol) into electrical energy. Another potential benefit of this study is the complete replacement of the membrane material by a supported graphene or hBN. This will facilitate the reduction in volume of a fuel cell, as the fuel will no longer need to be humidified so there will be fewer components, which is important for mobile/portable applications.

Planned Impact

The environmental and societal impacts of energy generation using sustainable sources cannot be overstated and has received national and global exposure. Fuel cells and the hydrogen economy along with renewable resources comprise a significant component in most strategies to combat climate change.

The problems around renewable resources focus on the intermittent nature of the generation and hence storage of the power is essential. A simple and effective way of storing the power is as hydrogen which can then be converted into electricity and water by fuel cell technology. The majority of the limitations around hydrogen generation and the operation of fuel cells relate to the cost and efficiency of the technology which is based around the membrane used in electrolysers and fuel cells and the expense of the platinum catalyst which is required for the processes.

In this work we will produce a significant increase in the barrier properties of the membrane which will in turn allow thinner membranes to be used increasing efficiency and reducing the unit cost of the equipment. The additional benefit of the enhanced utilisation of the expensive catalyst will also reduce capital cost.

These impacts will be felt ultimately by society due to the greater uptake of the 'green hydrogen' economy and hence benefit to the environment and quality of life. In addition, companies who manufacture the technology (eg ITM Power) and components for the membranes (eg 2D Tech) will have greater marketability for their products. End users of electrolysers and fuel cells such as renewable energy generation companies and automobile manufacturers will have a more efficient and cost effective product to incorporate into their systems.
Description We have demonstrated (and published) the fact that 2D materials are effective as barriers in working fuel cells. We have expanded this to take in the other objectives of the grant, namely hydrogen fuel cells and Redox Flow Batteries
Exploitation Route The concept can be incorporated in any electrochemical membrane.
Sectors Energy



Description The work led to the successful demonstration of 2D Materials in working fuel cells to enhance performance and has been described in numerous Journal Publications, Magazine articles (Fuel Cells Bulletin) and Café Scientifiques lecture. The work has led to further, research themes in Prof. Holmes' group and in collaboration with UCL and Newcastle Universities.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Energy
Impact Types Societal

Description Graphene Study summer school
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact This provides training for new researches in the area of water filtration and energy.
Description Design, Program, Evolve: Engineering efficient electrochemical devices for a net-zero world
Amount £1,987,344 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/W03395X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2022 
End 10/2026
Description Elucidation of membrane interface chemistry for electro-chemical processes
Amount £1,675,667 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P009050/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 08/2021
Description Press release-smart membranes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Managed to attract a potential industry collaborator.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://phys.org/news/2018-07-graphene-smart-membranes.html
Description Stuart Holmes gave a café scientifique lecture in April 2017. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Café Scientifique presentation on Fuel Cells in Manchester.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017