Jun 10, 2022

The Way to More Efficient Fuel Cells May Be With… Turmeric?

Clean Tech
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The key to safer, more efficient fuel cells could just be with turmeric, a common kitchen spice containing the compound curcumin.

Researchers at the Clemson Nanomaterials Institute and their collaborators from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning (SSSIHL) in India discovered a novel way to combine curcumin and gold nanoparticles to create an electrode requiring 100x less energy to efficiently convert ethanol into electricity.

While more testing is needed, the discovery brings replacing hydrogen as a fuel cell feedstock one step closer.


Fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction instead of combustion. They are used to power vehicles, buildings, portable electronic devices and backup power systems.

Hydrogen fuel cells are highly efficient and do not produce greenhouse gasses. While hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe, it needs to be derived from substances like natural gas and fossil fuels, since it naturally occurs on Earth only in compound form. This necessary extraction process adds to the cost and environmental impact of hydrogen fuel cells.

Another problem with using hydrogen as a feedstock? The hydrogen used in fuel cells is a compressed gas, creating challenges for storage and transportation. Ethanol, an alcohol made from corn or other agricultural-based feeds, is safer and easier to transport than hydrogen because it is a liquid.

"To make it a commercial product where we can fill our tanks with ethanol, the electrodes have to be highly efficient," said Lakshman Ventrapragada, an alumnus of SSSIHL. "At the same time, we don't want very expensive electrodes or synthetic polymeric substrates that are not eco-friendly because that defeats the whole purpose. We wanted to look at something green for the fuel cell generation process and making the fuel cell itself."


Fuel cells widely use platinum as a catalyst for the chemical reaction, but platinum suffers from poisoning because of reaction intermediates such as carbon monoxide. Another issue? Its price tag.

In this experiment, the researchers opted to use gold as the catalyst, and chose to use curcumin instead of conducting polymers, metal-organic frameworks, or other complex materials to deport the gold on the surface of the electrode. The reason? Its structural uniqueness.

Curcumin is used to decorate the gold nanoparticles to stabilize them, forming a porous network around the nanoparticles. Researchers deposited the curcumin gold nanoparticle on the surface of the electrode at a 100x lower electric current than in previous studies.

The curcumin coating stabilizes and creates a porous environment around the gold nanoparticles, allowing them to perform much better than without the coating.

There currently exists a big push in the industry for alcohol oxidation, and this discovery furthers this push. The next step? To scale the process up and find an industrial collaborator who can create the fuel cells and build stacks of them for real-life application.


The research could have broader implications than simply improved fuel cells. The electrode's unique properties could lend itself to future applications in sensors, supercapacitors and more, according to Ventrapragada.

In collaboration with the SSSIHL research team, the research team is testing the electrode as a sensor that could help identify changes in the level of dopamine. Dopamine has been implicated in disorders such as Parkinson's disease and ADHD.

When members of the research team tested urine samples obtained from healthy volunteers, they could measure dopamine to the approved clinical range with this electrode using a cost-effective method compared to standard ones used today.

"In the beginning stages of the project, we did not imagine other applications that gold-coated curcumin could support. However, before the end of the alcohol oxidation experiments, we were fairly confident that other applications are possible," Ventrapragada said. "Although we don't have a complete understanding of what's happening at the atomic level, we know for sure that curcumin is stabilizing the gold nanoparticles in a way that it can lend itself to other applications."

June 10, 2022

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