Engineers design new solid polymer electrolyte

The researchers’ new structure self-assembles into hairpin shapes, resulting in acid-lined channels that allow for efficient transport of protons across the electrolyte. Credit: Nature Materials

Fuel cells and batteries provide electricity by generating and coaxing positively charged ions from a positive to a negative terminal which frees negatively charged electrons to power cell phones, cars, satellites, or whatever else they are connected to. A critical part of these devices is the barrier between these terminals, which must be separated for electricity to flow.

Research led by University of Pennsylvania engineers suggests a different way forward: a new and versatile kind of solid polymer electrolyte (SPE) that has twice the proton conductivity of the current state-of-the-art material. Such SPEs are currently found in proton-exchange membrane fuel cells, but the researchers’ new design could also be adapted to work for the lithium-ion or sodium-ion batteries found in consumer electronics.

The study, published in Nature Materials, was led by Karen I. Winey, TowerBrook Foundation Faculty Fellow, professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Edward B. Trigg, then a doctoral student in her lab. Demi E. Moed, an undergraduate member of the Winey lab, was a coauthor.

They collaborated with Kenneth B. Wagener, George B. Butler Professor of Polymer Chemistry at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Taylor W. Gaines, a graduate student in his group. Mark J. Stevens, of Sandia National Laboratories, also contributed to this study, as well as Manuel Maréchal and Patrice Rannou, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, and the Université Grenoble Alpes.

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