MG-PTG * H => Au

by Michael Mullaney on March 4, 2010

Congratulations are in order for Kayvan Rafiee, who yesterday took home $30,000 for winning the 2010 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize. His project was titled ““Graphene — A Revolutionary Material for Hydrogen Storage.” Read about it on MSNBC, Scientific American, and listen to a radio interview with him and the other finalists here.

Kayvan’s winning innovation is simple and quite elegant. Graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chain-link fence – see the image above –has been called both the thinnest material ever measured and the strongest material ever measured.

Kayvan smartly connected the dots: Graphene has very high surface area, low density, and has a natural affinity for hydrogen, so maybe the material would play well in the realm of hydrogen vehicles, which are high on the U.S. Department of Energy’s priority list?

Play well, indeed. Kayvan enhanced graphene’s “stickiness” to hydrogen with a few engineering techniques, including mechanically grinding the graphene into what is essentially nanoscale rubble. The imperfections resulting from this grinding are key to his invention’s effectiveness. The structural and topological defects create more nooks and crannies in which hydrogen can attach to the graphene, and in some cases allow for direct chemical bonding.

This is cool stuff, and the results were unexpectedly positive. Kayvan’s mechanically-ground, plasma-treated graphene (MG-PTG) exhibited a hydrogen (H) storage capacity of 14 percent by weight at room temperature – far exceeding any other known material, and surpassing the DOE’s 2015 target of realizing a material with hydrogen storage capacity of 9 percent by weight at room temperature.

What does this mean? It means that if one day you or your children are driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, there’s a good chance that the graphene coating on the inside of your fuel tank will be a distant descendant of Kayvan’s 2010 Lemelson gold (Au) prize innovation. Pretty neat.

Kayvan’s advisor, Nikhil Koratkar, is quickly becoming an authority on graphene, with three big graphene-related papers published in high-impact journals over the past few months. Kayvan’s research will also result in a journal article, which we’ll report on once it’s published.

Rensselaer Professor Saroj Nayak is a well-established global leader in graphene research, and using the material in semiconductors and nanoelectronics. Reach all about it here, here, here, and here, and stay tuned for more great graphene-related work emerging from Nayak, Koratkar, and others.