Scientists Build Graphene Trap For Hopping Protons

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Chalk up another score for the fuel cell electric vehicle of the future, because US scientists have discovered a defect in graphene that lets protons — and only protons — “hop” through it. Graphene is an ultralight, ultrastrong material that is already being eyeballed for energy storage, and the new discovery could lead to the development of a new generation of fuel cell membranes.

Don’t run out to your local fuel cell EV dealer just yet, but US taxpayers can go ahead and give themselves a pat on the back. The new graphene discovery was mapped out using an ultra-powerful microscope at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

graphene gateway protons

Holy Hopping Protons, Batman!

Along with our sister site we’ve gone on and on (and on and on) about the many applications of graphene in clean technology, including electric vehicle batteries, but the fuel cell thing is a new one on us.

Apparently, it surprised the folks at ORNL, too. Although graphene is only one atom thick, it is incredibly strong, which is why we call it the nanomaterial of the new millennium. Until now, graphene was thought to be impermeable, limiting its use as a membrane.

The researchers found that defects in graphene act as highly selective molecular-scale “gates” that allow protons to “hop” through in “surprising numbers,” while keeping even the very smallest molecules out. That goes for you, too, hydrogen and helium.

The image above shows one such hopping proton in pink.

How To Trap A Hopping Proton

Speaking of group hugs, the ORNL project was a collaboration among 15 researchers in different fields including chemical vapor deposition techniques and electron microscopy.

To track the movement of the protons, the team fabricated a layer of graphene floating on a few molecules of water over silica glass.

This acted as a “trap for the hopping protons:”

Changes in the acidity of the aqueous solution on either side of the graphene layer revealed the covert gating mechanism in the material’s structure, which they were able to detect using a laser technique called second harmonic generation.

Second harmonic generation, btw, refers to an extremely sensitive technique for analyzing the chemical interface between two materials, without blowing either of them to bits.

You can read the whole study in Nature Communications under the title “Aqueous proton transfer across single-layer graphene.”

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Image Credit: Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3144 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

44 thoughts on “Scientists Build Graphene Trap For Hopping Protons

  • Hmm, this might lead to a better and more importantly cheaper proton exchange membranes. Fuel cell might be back in the game for grid storage and the EV market. Combine this with the surprising efficiency in new solid oxide electrolysis systems and things are looking up for fuel cell tech. Maybe Toyota isnt completely Daft after all..

    • I don’t see anything there that makes hydrogen affordable.

      • Solid oxide electrolysis makes hydrogen cheaper. Google, Novel electrode boosts green hydrogen.

        • Any plants up and running?

          If so, what is their selling price?

          All I see when I google is a materials development that might reduce the infrastructure cost a bit. It’s, at this point, an idea.

          • Their is little market for hydrogen at the moment. So the only people doing this kinda electrolysis are doing it in the LAB or part of demonstrator plant for liquid fuel syntheses (see Sunfire for a demo plant example). The market for hydrogen will emerge as Fuel cells become economical choice.

            Now Graphene has been demonstrated functionality as a superior PEM to Teflon, superior to graphite as a charge collector and comparable to platinum as a catalyst. All the pieces are in place it’s going to happen.

          • Show me where they have been able to lower the amount of electricity needed to produce and compress H2.

            Actual success. Not some “this might work” stuff. And not something about fuel cell improvement.

          • I as a regular non preferred customer I can purchase electricity during off peak hours a 4 cent per kilowatt hour. In the NW wind and hydro turbines regularly shutdown. Electricity so cheap it’s not worth the wear on the bearings.

            Renewables are going to usher in an era of plenty that will make the plenty of hydro power I enjoy seam meager. The cheap Electrical power that’s coming is going to change the equation of what’s possible.

          • You’re dodging the issue.

            Let’s assume 4 cent per kWh.

            A typical EV can drive 3+ miles on a kWh, so about 1.x cents per mile.

            It takes 2x to 3x as much electricity to drive a H2 FCEV which means cost per mile will be at least 2x to 3x more. And that is before we add in the cost of the H2 extraction, compression, storage and distribution infrastructure.

            Plus you specified ‘off peak’. The average EV needs to charge less than 3 hours a day which means that EVs can charge during off peak hours.

            Want to produce H2 with only off peak (cheap) electricity? Then you need 4x to 5x as much extraction/compression infrastructure. You’re not going to be running those plants 24 hours a day.

          • Dodging what? your predetermined assumptions about whats possible? The NW already periodically dumps excess power by the gigawatts.

            What if there was a way to store that periodic bumper crop of electricity, preserve some value in near free energy. If you can do that who cares if it’s only 30-40% efficient. There is value to turning something free into something of worth.

            What do you think is going to sink the excess power generation that will happen with mass adoption of renewibles? Batteries? Yeah right, affordable multi Gigawatt batteries are just around the corner.

            We have the tech to store that energy right now all it need is the market, a market that will come with excess electricity production.

          • You are dodging the amount of energy it takes to extract and compress hydrogen.

            Forget “excess power”. That will disappear as more EVs come on line.

            You are also ignoring the cost of hydrogen plants which operate only when electricity is very cheap. One does not build a plant then run it only a few hours on some nights without having to sell their product for an extremely high price.

            ” Yeah right, affordable multi Gigawatt batteries are just around the corner.”

            Actually, they seem to be. Factories are now being built.

          • There is no need to compress hydrogen if the electrolysis is done under high pressure. Putting water under high pressure do not require a lot of work as water is relatively “incompressible”. This is a more efficient approach. The other “waste” gas, oxygen, can be decompressed to generate electricity.


          • The information I find online is ten years old.

            All I see is that money is being spent on research to see if this might bring down costs.

          • You are missing his main point (which is also one of mine which you also kept missing). You assume a kWh cost close to current costs. Assume $0.0004 kWh and your cost analysis falls apart. We have no crystal ball as to what electricity will cost and the point here is that it will possibly at times be essentially free. You also are assumning an economic cost optimization model for human behavior which is clearly not applicable or no one would be driving Cadillac Escalades. Two assumptions – one clearly false, and the other dependent on future costs based on pure speculation.

            Here’s another example: homes in the eastern US were heated with coal well into the early-20th century but by the 1950’s they were heated with oil. It was more expensive but cheap enough that people were willing to pay the extra expense for the added convenience. Oil is way up in costs now but no one wants to return to coal though it would be really simple to do. They don’t want the inconvenience and dirt of coal and are willing to pay extra to avoid that.

            This article is (like most on Fuel Cells) talking in a pure research vein and you keep trying to relate it to cars about to roll off the assembly line in the very near future. Not even “apples vs oranges” – more like “apples vs pig iron”.

          • I am not willing to make an absurd assumption like electricity for $0.0004/kWh.

            At $0.04 it will still take 8 to 12 cents in electricity to drive a FCEV as far as an EV can go for 4 cents.

            And one has to pay for the infrastructure to extract, compress, store, transport and distribute the hydrogen.

            Furthermore, FCEVs have no meaningful advantage over EVs. Yes, it takes a bit longer to drive 500 miles in one day in an EV, but that time is way more than recovered by the ability to avoid filling stations the rest of the time.

            It will be a wonderful day when you finally understand that the problem is the cost of fuel.

          • Stand outside a Mercedes dealership and tell everyone going in that a Civic uses less fuel and costs less.

            The cost of home heating oil is up, and the cost of coal is down. No one is heating their homes with coal. The cost doesn’t matter in many cases.

            It will be a wonderful day when you realize you have no idea what the cost of fuel will be next year, much less in 20 years. The cost of electricity has actually gone negative some windy, sunny days.

          • Let them go inside and see two identical Mercedes, one that costs ten cents per mile to drive and the other that costs three cents per mile to drive.

          • You honestly think people willing to spend $50K to $100K+ for a car give a hoot about saving pennies? The whole point about owning cars like that is to show the world you don’t care about money. They get the V8 even if all they do is go to the hairdresser.

            When are you going to start your coal-based home heating co.? It saves money vs home heating oil so you should sell plenty!

          • One of the common ways people get to the point where they can spend $50k to $100k for a car is by being careful to save where they can. Ever read about “the millionaire next door”?

            “When are you going to start….”

            Are you going to flame out here, Michael?

          • Actually I did read “The Millionaire Next Door” and it described people who carefully conserved their money and their children who did anything but. Are you saying no one buys gas guzzling monsters? Look at the sales numbers.

            You keep ignoring the fact that a lot of people don’t care about fuel costs, even at $4/gal. You and I may, but cars are getting the same fuel economy they did 30 years ago and instead have steadily increased power and size. The new models are only now starting to change because of govt. mandates. People want their toys and assuming they are rational economic optimizers is contrary to what anyone can see around them.

          • Once, people regarded smoking as ‘normal’ now look at the way smokers are regarded, hopefully drivers of polluting vehicles will come to be regarded in the same way.

          • Here is some actual success. It causes direct Electron Transfer across molecular boundaries at incredibly high speeds, relative to previous work in the area. This could result in direct photon-fuel cell conversion.


            The more readable press release says:

            “However, producing solar fuel, for example in the form of hydrogen gas or methanol, requires entirely different technology. The idea is that solar light can be used to extract electrons from water and use them to convert light energy to energy rich molecules, which are the constituent of the solar fuel.”

            from here:


            It could make fuel cells practical at very low cost. In about 20-30 years. It is a laboratory experiment as was the item in the article here.

            Are you against basic research? Are you compelled by some dark force to interject “it isn’t on the market now” for all basic research even mentioning FCs, no matter how remote their marketability is?

          • Michael, do you not realize that the fuel source is not the same as the fuel cell? You continue to act as if an improvements in fuel cell performance makes hydrogen cheaper to extract and compress.

          • You said way back you supported basic research into FCs which this article is about so why the FC-hate diatribe?

            I’m simply saying there’s a lot out there that hasn’t been discovered and until we see EVs on their way to achieving dominance, it is foolish to criticize any alternative to the ICE. Anything can happen and “breakthrough battery” press releases aren’t product.

            Your cost argument has been blown away so many times, in so many ways I wonder what your antiFC argument is now?

          • Michael, I have posted no ” FC-hate diatribe”.

            I’m simply pointing out that you continue to ignore the fuel cost of hydrogen FCEVs.

          • You are completely and repeatedly ignoring the indisputable fact that most people aren’t that concerned with the cost of personal transportation. Otherwise they would all drive Civcs or ride buses. I’ve noted that so many times and you have ignored it completely and repeatedly. Because you have no answer to it?

          • “the indisputable fact that most people aren’t that concerned with the cost of personal transportation”

            I suppose you had data in hand before making that claim?

          • There is quite a large market for hydrogen at the moment. Thanks to the horrid glack that people now pretend is oil, roughly 2.5 kilograms of hydrogen are used per barrel of oil to make the hydrocarbons less carbony and more hydrogeny, and to help remove sulphur. Also a huge amount of hydrogen is used in the production of nitrogen fertilizer. All this hydrogen comes from natural gas, except for places like Western Australia where they want to build a massive coal gas urea plant. Let’s hope renewable electricity drop wholesale prices fast enough to make the idea of using coal completely ridiculous. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be that difficult. Our wholesale electricity prices are already among the lowest in the world. But since the very best proton exchange membrane electrolysers are pushing 90% efficiency, further efficiency improvements aren’t going to be game changers for transport.

          • It’s the 30 thousand $ worth of platinum in a current auto full cell thats the problem. Replace that and the fuel cell becomes a viable competitor.

          • That would help. But it’s always going to be less energy efficient than battery electric cars, there’s a lot of infrastructure involved in getting hydrogen to cars, and it will have to be able to competitive with running fuel cells off natural gas, LPG, methanol, ethanol, etc. So I’m not holding my breath for hydrogen fuel cell cars to soon be available.

          • I completely agree with you about the “soon” part, but this article we’re commenting on here is about basic research – basic research like this is typically 20-30 years (if ever) from commercialization. Critiqueing basic research for not being immediately cost effective is like criticizing a cat for not being a dog.

            As for ‘always less efficient’? Always is a very long time. Here is an article that shows direct photon-fuel cell possibilities:


            From above:
            “However, producing solar fuel, for example in the form of hydrogen gas or methanol, requires entirely different technology. The idea is that solar light can be used to extract electrons from water and use them to convert light energy to energy rich molecules, which are the constituent of the solar fuel.”

            So maybe “always” needs to be modified to “the near future”?

          • Only if we get new laws of physics. It is simply not possible for hydrogen to have the same energy efficiency as lithium-ion batteries that already exist. It is possible to charge a lithium-ion battery with 99% efficiency. Go through the steps required to get hydrogen to a fuel cell car, and then keep it in there since it’s impossible to stop hydrogen leaking, and see what kind of losses you are facing at each step. Electrolysis, compression, transportation, and storage. It won’t add up to 99%.

          • The article I cited and linked to is rather technical so it may not be as clear as it might be but did you even read it? It describes a process that bypasses all the steps you seem to be thinking of (like hydrolysis) to get H2 and goes straight to energy storage.

            From the above cited article:

            “Our study shows how it is possible to construct a molecule in which the conversion of light to chemical energy happens so fast that no energy is lost as heat. This means that all the energy in the light is stored in a molecule as chemical energy”, said Villy Sundström, Professor of Chemical Physics at Lund University.

            That seems pretty close to 100%.

            Years away from being practical or commercial but it apparently sidesteps the “laws of physics” you are thinking of by looking at other processes – while not violating the laws of physics.

            I would not sell human ingenuity short.

          • A quanta of energy moving through a complex molecule is not of itself electrolysis. Electrolysis still has to occur using that energy and it will not be 100% efficient. Then once electrolysis occurs and hydrogen gas is produced, it will still have to be compressed and transported and losses due to leakage will still occur. And then there is the efficiency of the fuel cell, which currently is about 60% at best for electrical energy efficient than storing electricity in a lithium-ion battery. So it is always going to be less energy efficient. Now it is not energy efficiency but economics that will determine whether or not hydrogen fuel cells will be used, but its efficiency does effect its econmics.

          • That is a 5 year old calculation. The savings today would be much less in raw materials costs.

          • There was another post on CT a week or so ago showing how eliminating the Pt could be done.

          • Here’s research on an alternative which is cheaper and better than Pt.


            “In these tests, the composites clearly outperformed the platinum-based alternatives. They were more efficient than the platinum-based solutions, with comparable devices in the lab lasting about five times longer, for more than 64 charge-discharge cycles.

            “While these are still research laboratory results, the first results for full battery prototypes are encouraging, comments Liu. “We envisage a 100-watt rechargeable battery stack in one to two years and a 500-watt one in one to three years.”

          • This is clearly an article on lab research. Practical results are typically 20-30 years for this sort of thing. Nowhere in the article does it say this is about to hit the market. Why are you even entering the discussion if you are concerned with things that are marketable right now?

          • Why did I get into the discussion?

            “Maybe Toyota isnt completely Daft after all.

          • Toyota is indisputably one of the, if not the single, most successful auto cos. in the world. Saying Toyota is not daft is hardly a statement that cries out for refutation.

          • Other companies have been king of the mountain. It did not make them incapable of bad business decisions.

            That’s fairly obvious by simply observing that they are no longer number one.

  • This would be good for use in Fuel Cell standby electric generators instead of batteries for prolonged periods such as monsoonal cloudy skies that could last for weeks at a time. Right now, Bloom Solid Oxide Fuel Cells are very expensive.

    But for use in vehicles, that is another story.

  • Thank you as always for a lively discussion. The researchers brought up the potential for improved fuel cells for electric vehicles so I ran with that angle, and the points about coal v. oil for home heating (and Mercedes v. Civic) were well taken. The key difference between gas and electric EVs is the degree of variety and flexibility available with electricity, and that includes running your V on a battery, a fuel cell, or both.

    • Google translates this as “Boys, boys! Calm down and get back in your seats or there will be no recess today. Why can’t you all be like that nice Marion and quit throwing erasers.”

  • Thanks for the link. This led me to some other stuff which I thought at first was the same research but it’s not – however, it is related. It lets H2 through graphene – unlike the research you cited – and is therefore potentially very uselful in desalination:

    This is a concern for most of the world where getting drinkable water is more an issue than fueling up the car. From the article:

    “It’s a huge advance,” said Vlassiouk, pointing out a wealth of water travels through the porous graphene membrane. “The flux through the current graphene membranes was at least an order of magnitude higher than [that through] state-of-the-art reverse osmosis polymeric membranes.”

    An order of magnitude for the non-tech here means 10X more. That is very, very impressive.

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