The Nobel Prize winners for graphene research, Andre Geim of Manchester University and colleagues, have revealed a new application for the ultra-thin, ultra-strong material that could revolutionize fuel cell technology and open new doors for generating clean energy, reports Reuters.

Graphene, which was first isolated in 2004, is the thinnest material on Earth at just one atom thick, and is 200 times stronger than steel. It is impermeable to all gases and liquids, making it extremely useful, and its discovery paved the way for everything from corrosion-proof coating to super-thin condoms. 

In their latest research, Geim and his team have also shown that this super-material could potentially be used for "sieving" hydrogen gas from the atmosphere, for the purpose of generating electricity. The finding could make hydrogen fuel cells more viable than ever before, and even make it possible to collect fuel right out of the air.

"We are very excited about this result because it opens a whole new area of promising applications for graphene in clean energy harvesting and hydrogen-based technologies," said Geim's co-researcher on the study, Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.

Though graphene is impermeable to even the smallest of atoms, Geim and his team found that protons, or hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons, were nevertheless capable of passing through the material. This was especially the case when the graphene was heated and when graphene films were covered with platinum nanoparticles, which act as catalysts.

Basically, this means that graphene could potentially be used in proton-conducting membranes, which are essential components of fuel cell technology. Graphene would be a superior material for these components because it does not leak — a common problem with membranes made of other materials — which would greatly improve efficiency.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is that this latest breakthrough means graphene membranes could be used to extract hydrogen straight from the atmosphere. When combined with fuel cells, this technology could make it possible to make mobile electric generators powered just by the tiny amounts of hydrogen in the air.

"Essentially, you pump your fuel from the atmosphere and get electricity out of it," Geim said. "Our (study) provides proof that this kind of device is possible."

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