Common spice leads to fuel cell breakthrough.

AuthorKnauss, Christina Lee
PositionTurmeric, Clemson Nanomaterials Institute research

ByChristina Lee Knauss

Turmeric is a popular spice in many kitchens, known not only for its taste but for its many health properties. But who knew it also could function as a more environmentally friendly way to generate electricity?

The spice's potential role in technology has been revealed through researchers at the Clemson Nanomaterials Institute, who recently published research that shows how curcumin, the main substance in turmeric, can be used to build safer, more efficient fuel cells. The researchers worked with collaborators from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Anantapur, India.

The main goal of the research was to find a substance that could potentially replace hydrogen as the main feedstock for fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction instead of combustion. Fuel cells are a vital part of daily life throughout the world, used to power vehicles, buildings, portable electronics and backup power systems, among many other uses.

Hydrogen as a power source has its ups and downs. The most common element on Earth, it is highly efficient and doesn't produce greenhouse gases. However, it only occurs naturally in compound form with other elements, so it has to be derived from substances such as natural gas and fossil fuels, a process both expensive and tough on the environment.

"Hydrogen also has challenges because it is used in fuel cells as a compressed gas, which can make it risky and more expensive to transport," said Lakshman Ventrapragada, a researcher at CNI who designed the experiment with curcumin while doing his thesis work under the instruction of Apparao Rao, founding director of CNI and the R.A. Bowen Professor of Physics at Clemson. The research took place over the past two years with the findings recently published in the journal Nano Energy.

Ventrapagada was looking for a way to replace hydrogen in fuel cells with ethanol, an alcohol made from corn or other agricultural products that would also be more environmentally friendly to obtain. These ethanol-based fuel cells would also require highly efficient electrodes, but the researchers didn't want to build them using substances that would be expensive or tough on the environment.

"Our focus was to see if we could incorporate naturally available products instead of synthetically created ones in the fuel cell," Ventrapagada said. "Using substances that are not eco-friendly would have defeated the whole purpose."

The researchers focused...

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