Scientists at the Energy Dept.’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a catalyst that could make ethanol-powered fuel cells a reality. Until now, researchers could not accelerate ethanol’s relatively slow oxidation. (Oxidation breaks ethanol’s carbon bonds, turning it into the electrons used to generate electricity and hydrogen ions.) Except for that stumbling block, ethanol seems ideal for fuel cells. It is easy to make, renewable, relatively easy to transport, and has a high energy density, according to Radoslav Adzic, a Brookhaven chemist. “And with some alterations, we could use the same infrastructure currently in place to store and distribute gasoline.”

The new catalyst, — platinum and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles — can break the carbon bonds in ethanol at room temperature, with carbon dioxide as the main reaction product. Other catalysts, by comparison, generate acetalhyde and acetic acid as reaction products, which rules them out for use in fuel cells.