Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have improved the power output of methanol fuel cells by more than 50 percent, which could broaden fuel cell applications to include portable electronics. The engineers achieved this by developing an alternative to Nafion, the material commonly used as the electrolyte between the cell's electrodes.

Nafion is costly and permeable to methanol, allowing fuel seepage and thus lowering the cell's efficiency. Using layer-by-layer assembly, the MIT researchers created a thin-film material that is less permeable to methanol but compares favorably to Nafion in proton conductivity. The result was an increase in power output of more than 50 percent.

"We were able to tune the structure of [our] film a few nanometers at a time," said Paula T. Hammond, Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the research team. The team is now exploring whether the new film can completely replace Nafion. To that end, they have been generating standalone thin films with a consistency like plastic wrap.

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