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Los Alamos National LaboratoryCenter for Integrated Nanotechnologies
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Science Highlights

A selection of the latest research out of CINT.


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  • Beth Stelle
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Featured Highlight

Polymer Folding Fuels Efficient Proton Transport

Well-controlled polymer folding has been used for proton transport for the first time, with high proton conductivity within a crystalline polymer structure.
Nature Materials

Controlling the arrangement of atoms in a molecule to obtain desirable molecular structures and properties is important for fundamental science as well as technological applications, such as fuel cells. Recent advances in polymer synthesis have enabled remarkable control over this process, including the ability to precisely place groups of atoms. This strategy for controlling the structure of polymers holds great promise for the development of highly efficient fuel cells. One type of fuel cell of particular interest to researchers generates electricity by way of proton exchange membranes. Researchers have spent decades trying to develop new membranes with lower production costs and other desirable attributes such as a higher operating temperature.

Schematic of a hydrated polyethylene structure.
Chemical structure and schematic rendering of the hydrated crystalline structure.

This latest research by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida, Université Grenoble Alpes, and the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies takes an innovative approach to controlling polymer folding in order to achieve a well-ordered, highly crystalline structure with high proton conductivity. The team achieved this by placing sulfonic acid groups on precisely every 21st carbon along the polymer chain. At these positions a hairpin-shaped fold is formed. This triggers a directed self-assembly into a crystalline structure containing water layers of sub-nanometer thickness. Subsequent testing showed that proton conductivity in this crystalline polymer structure is on par with Nafion® 117, the benchmark for fuel cell membranes. The success of this approach provides striking new insight into the design of synthetic membranes which conduct protons or other ions. This robust and versatile layered structure could be engineered and modified for applications in anhydrous fuel cell membranes, cation or anion conductive membranes for batteries, and water purification membranes.

E.B. Trigg, T.W. Gaines, M. Maréchal, D.E. Moed, P. Rannou, K.B. Wagener, M.J. Stevens, and K.I. Winey, "Self-Assembled Highly Ordered Acid Layers in Precisely Sulfonated Polyethylene Produce Efficient Proton Transport." Nature Materials (2018). [DOI: 10.1038/s41563-018-0097-2]

CINT Contact: Mark Stevens