Graphene is impermeable to gases and liquids, but groundbreaking new research suggests protons can miraculously pass through it. 

The finding could revolutionize fuel cells and other hydrogen-based technologies because they need a barrier that allows only protons through, the University of Machester reported. These types of barriers could allow for the creation of electric generators powered by air. 

Graphene is a remarkable one-atom-thick material that has been of interest, in part, because of its barrier properties. Because of these properties researchers expected protons to be blocked by the material as well. The team was surprised to find protons passed through the graphene with ease, especially at high temperatures. 

"It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square [meter] sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later," said Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author in this work.

These findings suggest graphene is a good candidate for proton-conducting membranes, which are essential in modern fuel cells technology. The finding would reduce fuel crossover, which reduces efficiency. The team also demonstrated these films can extract hydrogen from a humid atmosphere. This type of technology could be combined with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator that is fueled simply by hydrogen harvested from the environment. 

"When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup. You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell," said Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper. "We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is of course tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort." 

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Nature.