Abstract Palladium and platinum–ruthenium nanoparticles supported on multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) are prepared by the impregnation-reduction procedure. The materials obtained, Pd/ MWCNT and Pt–Ru/ MWCNT, are characterized by TEM, ICP-AES and XRPD. Electrodes coated with Pd/ MWCNT are scrutinized for the oxidation of methanol, ethanol or glycerol in 2 M KOH solution in half cells. The catalyst is very active for the oxidation of all alcohols, with glycerol providing the best performance in terms of specific current density and ethanol showing the lowest onset potential. Membrane-electrode assemblies have been fabricated using Pd/ MWCNT anodes, commercial cathodes and anion-exchange membrane and evaluated in both single passive and active direct alcohol fuel cells fed with aqueous solutions of 10 wt.% methanol, 10 wt.% ethanol or 5 wt.% glycerol. Pd/ MWCNT exhibits unrivalled activity as anode electrocatalyst for alcohol oxidation. The analysis of the anode exhausts shows that ethanol is selectively oxidized to acetic acid, detected as acetate ion in the alkaline media of the reaction, while methanol yields carbonate and formate. A much wider product distribution, including glycolate, glycerate, tartronate, oxalate, formate and carbonate, is obtained from the oxidation of glycerol. The results obtained with Pt–Ru/ MWCNT anodes in acid media are largely inferior to those provided by Pd/ MWCNT electrodes in alkaline media.