In fuel cells and metal-air batteries, platinum catalysts play a crucial role in speeding up the chemical reactions that convert hydrogen and oxygen to water. But the partially unzipped, multi-walled nanotubes might work just as well, Li added. "We found that the catalytic activity of the nanotubes is very close to platinum," he said. "This high activity and the stability of the design make them promising candidates for fuel cells."
The researchers recently sent samples of the experimental nanotube catalysts to fuel cell experts for testing. "Our goal is to produce a fuel cell with very high energy density that can last very long," Li said.
Multi-walled nanotubes could also have applications in metal-air batteries made of lithium or zinc.
"Lithium-air batteries are exciting because of their ultra-high theoretical energy density, which is more than 10 times higher than today's best lithium ion technology," Dai said. "But one of the stumbling blocks to development has been the lack of a high-performance, low-cost catalyst. Carbon nanotubes could be an excellent alternative to the platinum, palladium and other precious-metal catalysts now in use."
The Stanford study might also have resolved a long-standing scientific controversy about the chemical structure of catalytic active sites where oxygen reactions occur. "One group of scientists believes that iron impurities are bonded to nitrogen at the active site," Li said. "Another group believes that iron
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