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Multifunctional iridium-based catalyst for water electrolysis and fuel cells

Most of the world’s energy needs are currently served by fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) annual projection indicates that the global energy demand will increase twice by 2040, mostly in emerging markets and developing economies.

To meet increasing global energy demands and to replace depleting fossil fuels, policy makers believe that alternative clean and renewable energy sources are the best solution. Such renewable energy sources can be electricity for solar, wind or geothermal energy as well as hydroelectric power. The latter, however, has reached a certain degree of saturation in fully industrialized countries.

While solar and wind energy are available in most places of the world at more or less reasonable cost, their biggest disadvantage is that they are intermittent, difficult to store and transport, and difficult to tank in cars, planes and ships. Converting solar and wind energy in hydrogen gas could be an elegant way out of this dilemma as the fuel’s resource can be abundant water. Diversifying the energy mix by adding hydrogen at acceptable cost may prove more efficient with a lower environmental footprint as compared to other fuels. Hence, the interest for  water electrolysis and fuel cells  is constantly growing.

Most of today’s hydrogen is produced through steam reforming of natural gas. However, it can also be made from water electrolysis. Electrolysis is two-electrode reactions: the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) at the cathode and the oxygen evolution reaction (OER) at the anode.

Fuel cells reverse the reaction and harvest electricity produced by fusing the hydrogen and oxygen atoms back together to obtain water. While there are different types of fuel cells, those commonly used with hydrogen as fuel are polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, or PEMFC. The PEM acronym is also often used for proton exchange membranes, which can be made of polymers, for example Nafion™.  In PEMFC, energy is liberated through the hydrogen oxidation reaction (HOR) at the anode and oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) at the cathode. To become economically feasible, there are still technical challenges of water electrolyzers and fuel cells to overcome. Some technical problems result in serious system degradation.

Water is pumped into a fuel cell where two electrodes split it into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2)

A study published in Nature Communications by researcher of Technical University Berlin and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, suggests using a novel iridium electrocatalyst with multifunctional properties and remarkable reversibility. While iridium also is precious and one of the platinum group metals, the novel Ir-catalyst was designed for the processes where electrochemical reactions change rapidly, such as the voltage reversal of water electrolysis and PEMFC systems. This would integrate the two energy conversion systems in one and therefore be a great economical benefit over existing solutions.

Challenges

Unexpectedly changing operating conditions such as a sudden shut-down of water electrolysis result in increased hydrogen electrode potentials which lead to degradation hydrogen producing electrodes.

In fuel cells, fuel starvation can occur at the anode, leading to voltage reversal. Ultimately, this causes degradation of fuel cell components such as the catalyst support, gas diffusion layer and flow field plates. It has been proposed to introduce a water oxidation catalyst to the anode of the PEMFcs in order to promote OER since it is the reaction that competes with the carbon corrosion reaction.

Design of a unique iridium-based multifunctional catalyst

For the study, a crystalline multifunctional iridium nanocatalyst has been designed considering the mentioned challenges in water electrolysis and fuel cell operation.

The reason why an iridium-based material has been selected is its remarkable OER activity as well as good HER and HOR catalytic activity. It is a superior material for anodes and cathodes in electrolyzers and for anodes of PEMFC. For comparisons, the researchers synthesized two catalysts  using the modified impregnation method: carbon-supported IrNi alloy nanoparticles with high crystallinity (IrNi/C-HT) and with low crystallinity (IrNi/C-LT).

The findings indicated that the surface of IrNi/C-HT had reversibly converted between a metallic character and an oxidic IrNiOx character. Under OER operation that is, anodic water oxidation, the crystalline nanoparticles form an atomically-thin IrNiOx layer. This oxide layer reversibly transforms into metallic iridium when returning towards more cathodic potentials. The reversal allows the catalyst to return to its high HER and HOR activity.

The experiments also revealed that the performance of IrNi/C-LT sharply decrease after carrying out the OER. The catalyst degradation was due to the irreversible destruction of the amorphous IrNiOx surface.

In situ/operando X-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) and depth-resolving X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) profiles, suggested that the thin layers of IrNiOx possess an increase in the number of d-band holes during OER, due to which catalyst IrNi/C-HT exhibited excellent OER activity. As expected, under HER conditions, the thin IrNiOx layer was reversibly converted to metallic surface. The mechanistic study of the reversible catalytic activity of the IrNiOx layer has been additionally analyzed by electrochemical flow-cell using inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). The results demonstrate that the reversible IrNiOx layers come from a dissolution and re-deposition mechanism.

In addition, the performance and catalytic reversibility of synthetized electrocatalysts were used to perform HOR and OER in a real electrochemical device and tested under fuel starvation of the PEMFC. Using voltage reversal, the fuel cell was converted into an electrolyzer.

Fuel starvation experiments were conducted in a single PEM fuel cell built using IrNi/C-HT and IrNi/C-LT as the catalytically active components in the anode catalyst layer. The initial fuel cell performance of IrNi/C-LT and -HT was lower than that of the commercial Pt/C catalyst due to the lower HOR and metal composition.

Further results demonstrate that IrNi/C-HT catalyst retained its bifunctional catalytic activity, reversibing between HER and OER in a real device. This approach promoted the reversibility of nanocatalysts, which enable a variety of electrochemical reactions and can be used as catalysts to resist the reverse voltage in fuel cells and water electrolysis systems.

At Frontis Energy, we are looking forward to adding the novel iridium catalyst to our Fuel Cell Shop as soon as it becomes available.

Photo: Iridium / Wikipedia

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Rapid imaging of ion dynamics in battery materials

Particles in lithium-ion batteries are crucial for releasing positively and negatively charged lithium ions. The migration of these ions is a limiting factor for the batteries’ charge and discharge cycles. To develop fast charging batteries, engineers and scientists need to understand how ions in batteries travel. Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge published in the prestigious journal Nature an imaging approach that follows ion movement in functional battery materials in real-time. This technology helps to better understand how lithium-ion batteries work at sub-micrometer sizes and ultimately to construct batteries that charge in only a few minutes.

Scientists need to understand the ion dynamics of active particles to build better batteries but also other galvanic cells such as fuel cells or electrolyzers. Hitherto, traditional approaches for studying lithium-ion dynamics could not trace the rapid changes that occur in batteries that charge in minutes at sub-micrometer precision.

The problem

In lithium-ion batteries, two porous electrodes (positive and negative) are comprised of active particles: carbon, a metal oxide and a binder. The carbon and metal oxides act as electron conductors, while the binder glues the particles to hold the materials together. An electrolyte separates the two electrodes of the battery and acts as a conduit for ions to travel from one electrode to the other.

Engineers need to image the relevant physical and chemical interactions at least ten times faster than the operation time to track the internal ion dynamics of batteries for each of these processes. This is similar to choosing a camera shutter speed appropriate for filming sports – if the shutter speed is too slow, the camera will generate hazy images. The geometry of the active particles and the structure of the porous electrodes are of particular interest for battery development.

Each battery imaging technique has a unique image capture time, defining which battery functions can be accurately recorded. Previously existing approaches take a few minutes to collect an image; therefore, they can only catch processes that take many hours to complete.

Which is the new concept?

Notably, the researchers’ novel technique takes less than a second to acquire a picture, allowing for considerably faster processes to be studied than previously feasible. As an imaging tool, it is also capable of studying batteries while in use and has a sufficient spatial resolution. This sub micrometer resolution is required to track what happens in an active particle. Furthermore, by comparing the evolution of ion concentration in active particles spatially separated in the electrode, the approach can map ion dynamics at the electrode scale.

Methodology

The research team adapted an optical microscopy approach previously used in biology to follow lithium-ion mobility in active battery materials. This method involves passing a laser beam at electrochemically active battery particles storing or releasing lithium ions and then analyzing the scattered light. As additional lithium is stored, the local concentration of electrons in these particles varies. This changes the scattering pattern. As a result, the local change in lithium concentration correlates with the time development of the scattering signals and can be used to locate the particles.

During charge-discharge cycles, ‘active’ materials in battery electrodes store and release ions. The researchers describe in their publication a real-time imaging approach that uses light scattered from active particles to follow ion concentration changes. The intensity of scattering fluctuates with local ion concentration. In their approach, the evolution of scattering patterns over time indicated the system’s ion dynamics. As additional ions are stored in a particle, the colors of the contours show the change in scattering intensity over the previous 5-second period: red denotes an increase in intensity, while blue suggests a reduction. The shifting patterns correspond to the material’s passage from one phase to the next. When a central domain of one phase shrinks and surrounding domains of another phase grows, broken black lines show phase borders.

Conclusion

The new imaging technique can be used for almost all active materials that store lithium or other ions, suffering electronic changes as the ion concentration changes. Because standard approaches cannot directly track changes in local concentration throughout a particle during fast operation, the time variation of ion concentration in active particles remains poorly understood. The new solution will enable electrochemical engineers to test proposed mechanisms of ion transport in these materials by overcoming the imaging problem.

Limitations to this approach

It should be emphasized that the spatial resolution of the authors’ imaging technique is limited by a basic restriction imposed by the wavelength of the light. Shorter wavelengths are required to resolve finer details. In the presented work, the resolution was around 300 nanometers. Another point to consider is that laser scattering is the result of light interacting with just one object. Another drawback is that scattering results from light interacting with the particle’s first couple of atomic levels. As a result, this method only catches the ion movements in the 2D plane related to these atomic layers. Slower approaches, such as X-ray tomography, can be used to gather 3D information.

Way forward

It will be fascinating to follow up on the authors’ findings for individual particles and investigate porous electrodes under the far-from-equilibrium conditions of fast charging.

This approach could also investigate solid electrolytes, which are intriguing but poorly understood battery materials. Suppose light scattering from solid electrolytes varies with local ion concentration, as it does in active materials. In that case, the approach could be used to map how the ion distribution changes in such electrolytes as electric current travel through them. Other systems involving coupled ion and electron transport, such as catalyst layers in fuel cells and electrochemical gas sensors, could benefit from the optical scattering method as well.

In the future, thorough scattering tests using homogeneous particles could help to quantify the link between the scattering response and lithium-ion concentration. The scattering signals might then be converted to local concentrations using this correlation. However, the link between different materials will not always be the same. Machine-learning approaches could accelerate finding these links and automate light scattering analysis.

The authors’ imaging method also opens up the possibility of measuring chemical and physical (geometric) changes in active particles during battery operation at the same time. The difference between the scattering from a particle and that from other materials in a battery (such as the binder or electrolyte) could be used to determine the particle shape and how it evolves. The time required for light scattering a particle would reveal local changes in lithium concentration. These materials store much more energy than current active materials, and their adoption could reduce battery weight. This would be especially advantageous in electric vehicles, as it would allow for longer driving ranges.

The research provides previously unavailable insights into battery materials working in non-equilibrium situations. Their method for directly monitoring changes in active particles during operation will complement previous approaches that rely on destructive battery tests to infer internal alterations. As a result, it has the potential to transform the battery-design process.

Reference details

Merryweather, et al., 2021 “Operando optical tracking of single-particle ion dynamics in batteries”, Nature, 594, 522–528, doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03584-2

Image: Wikipedia

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Smart fuel cells catalyzed by self-adjusting anodes improve water management

Hydrogen fuel cells are often regarded as a key element in the green energy transition. Their efficiency is double the thermochemical energy conversion of internal combustion engines. Hydrogen fuel cells convert the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen directly into electricity and water. Hence, water plays a central role in fuel cells. It supports ion transport and participates is product of the reaction itself. In an anion exchange membrane fuel cell (AEMFC), for the oxygen reduction reaction to take place, the water in the anode catalyst layer (ACL) must diffuse to the cathode catalyst layer (CCL). In summary, water management is required to remove water from the ACL for higher efficiency of hydrogen diffusion and to balance the water in the entire membrane electrode assembly (MEA).

Significant research efforts have been made to achieve conditions that is suitable for both the anode and cathode in AEMFC. Asymmetric humidification of reactant gases was proposed to be beneficial to achieve well equilibrated water balance between the two electrodes. At higher temperatures, excess anode water evaporates. It also causes deficiencies at the cathode which also requires water to function. To counteract this, a new system that controls the back pressure at the anode and cathode was introduced. However, external control mechanisms (active control) increase the complexity of the system control.

This is where a passive control system involving MEA modification comes into the picture. Moisture control in a fuel cells can be achieved by designing a suitable gas diffusion layer. Adopting different types of hydrophobic materials for the anode and hydrophilic for the cathode can improve overall fuel cell performance. Poly ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) copolymer ion exchange membranes, such as Nafion™ have high water mobility. This property can help water back diffusion to avoid anode flooding while preventing dehydration of the cathode. Designing a gradient microstructure or ionomer content within the CCL could also be useful to improve cell performance and durability.

Recent research published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science addresses these questions. The presented study was carried out to assess a multi-layer CCL design with the gradient capillary force which has a driving effect on water to solve the water balance problem of anodes in AEMFC. For the purpose of the study, platinum on carbon and platinum-ruthenium on carbon were selected as anode catalysts. Ruthenium increases the hydrogen oxidation reaction activity and possesses beneficial structural properties. Water management and performance of AEMFC would be influenced by the structure of the ACL.

Microstructure analysis of ACLs

ACLs composed of different layers of Pt/C and PtRu/C and a mixed version with a similar thickness of around 9-10 µm were analyzed with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX).

Pt/C ACL had pores of less than 150 nm while PtRu/C catalysts pores ranged between 300-400 nm. The mixed ACL had a pore size <200 nm.

The researchers concluded that Pt/C and PtRu/C ACL had a stratified and gradient pore size distribution spanning across the anion exchange membrane and the gas diffusion layer. The mixed ACL, however, had a homogenous pore structure throughout the MEA.

Membrane electrode assembly using a polymer electrolyte membrane

Moisture adsorption and desorption behavior of ACLs

To investigate moisture adsorption and desorption, the change of the fuel cell’s moisture content was checked with regards to different levels of relative humidity.

It was observed that the moisture content level increased by up to 50% mass weight along with an increase in relative humidity from 20% to 80%.

With an extended equilibrium time for a relative humidity of 80%, the moisture content of Pt/PtRu and PtRu/Pt ACL began to decrease. This was evidence for the self-adjusting water management behavior.

Desorption at a relative humidity of 60% was done. The water content in ACL showed rapid adsorption and slow-release properties at each relative humidity setting.

Physical adjustment of water behavior was observed in PtRu/Pt ACLs. This was attributed to gradient nano-pores and promoted water transport when water was generated within the ACLs during the electrochemical reactions. It would facilitate fuel cells operation at high current density.

Fuel cell performance of ACLs

To assess the structural effect on water management during operation, fuel cell performance was investigated at different relative humidity and temperature levels.

With increasing relative humidity from 40% to 80%, an increase of the maximum power density was observed as well while the temperature remained constant at 50°C. This was due to higher ionic conductivity at high membrane hydration.

At relative humidity of 100%, a maximum power density of the Pt/PtRu MEA and the mixed MEA decreased, however. The inverted MEA version using PtRu/Pt an increase to 243 mW/cm2 was observed. This suggested that the moisture desorption ability of PtRu/Pt MEA promoted mass transfer during fuel cell operation.

At a temperature of 60°C and 100% relative humidity, the maximum power density of PtRu/Pt reached 252 mW/cm2.

A durability test was conducted for PtRu/Pt MEA. It showed that after continuous operation for more than 16 hours at 100 mA/cm2 the voltage drop was <4%.

Conclusion

It became clear from the tests that the PtRu/Pt anode catalyst layer with its homogenous layer had a better self-adjustment capability for fuel cell water management. The gradient nanopore structure of the catalyst layer made it possible to transport water through the capillary effect. Excess water at the anode could either be transported towards the cathode where it would be used for reaction or towards the gas diffusion layer for its removal prevented flooding. Moreover, this catalyst layer made from PtRu/Pt showed better performance abilities too.

At Frontis Energy we think that this could resolve the issues faced with water management in the fuel cells. Since it is a passive control system that involves modifying the design of the fuel cells internally, intricate external systems could be replaced or complemented. The study certainly helps future fuel cell automation as an interesting new aspect of fuel cell design was discovered that could make them smarter.

Reference: Self-adjusting anode catalyst layer for smart water management in anion exchange membrane fuel cells, Cell Reports Physical Science, Volume 2, Issue 3, 24 March 2021, 100377

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Green alternative to fluorinated membranes in PEM fuel cells

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells have high power density, low operational temperatures. If PEM runs on green hydrogen, it doesn’t even emit carbon. But their fabrication requires perfluorinated sulfonic acid (PFSA) polymers as an electrolyte separator membrane and as an ionomer in the electrode, which is quite expensive. Nafion® is the leading commercial PFSA polymer in the market. However, its manufacturing is costly as well as environmentally hazardous. Therefore, low-cost, environmentally friendly PFSA polymer substitutes are the primary goals for the fuel cell scientific community worldwide.

Researchers of the Texas A&M University and Kraton Performance Polymers Inc. experimented using NEXAR ™ polymer membranes in hydrogen fuel cells, studying different ion exchange capacities. NEXAR ™ polymer membranes are commercially available sulfonated pentablock terpolymers. They published the results in the Journal of Membrane Science . Previous studies showed that changing the ion exchange capacity, that is, the degree of sulfonation of NEXAR ™ membranes can alter the nanoscale morphology and significantly affect mechanical properties. This may influence fuel cell performance. Hence, this polymer may be used as a membrane alternative to Nafion® in fuel cells.

Experimental procedure

  1. Materials under consideration: three different variants of the polymer were taken up each with different Ion Exchange Capacities (IECs: 2.0, 1.5, and 1.0 meq / g), which were named NEXAR ™ -2.0, NEXAR ™ -1.5, and NEXAR ™ – 1.0 respectively.
  2. NEXAR ™ membrane preparation: NEXAR ™ membranes were fabricated by casting the NEXAR ™ solutions onto a silicon-coated Mylar PET film using an automatic film applicator under ambient conditions. Two different sizes were manufactured for measuring mechanical properties and conductivity.
  3. NEXAR ™ membrane characterization: mechanical properties using the size 25 mm (L) x 0.5 mm (W) membrane as test pieces were determined and for proton conductivity test pieces of size 30 mm (L) x 10 mm (W) were tested upon.
  4. Nafion® electrode fabrication: conventional Nafion® electrodes were also fabricated as controls to conduct simultaneous tests.
  5. NEXAR ™ electrode fabrication: NEXAR ™ electrodes were prepared in 2 ways for the 2-part study, each with a different composition.
  6. Electrode characterization: electrode profiling was done using a scanning electron microscopy (SEM).
  7. Membrane electrode assembly (MEA) and fuel cell tests: MEAs were fabricated by placing the membrane in between two catalyst-coated gas diffusion layers (anode and cathode) and heat pressing. The entire fuel cell assembly consisted of an MEA, two gaskets, and two flow plates placed between copper current collectors followed by end plates all held together by bolts. Fuel cell performance tests were conducted under ambient pressure with saturated (100% RH) anode and cathode flow rates of 0.43 L / min hydrogen and 1.02 L / min oxygen respectively.
  8. Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS): electrochemical impedance spectroscopy was performed after the fuel cell tests and the results analyzed.

Results

NEXAR ™ -2.0 and NEXAR ™ -1.5 had a similar proton conductivity at all temperatures, suggesting that there is a maximum limit in proton conductivity. On the contrary, NEXAR ™ membranes, when compared to Nafion® NR-212 membranes , have sufficient proton conductivity to translate into high power density hydrogen fuel cell performance.

However, NEXAR ™ -2.0 and NEXAR ™ -1.5 membranes (with Nafion® as Ionomer) did not exhibit expected fuel cell performance at all fuel cell operating conditions (temperature, pressure, voltage and humidity). Surprisingly, the NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane (with Nafion® as Ionomer) showed expected fuel cell performance across all fuel cell operating conditions and comparable power densities to Nafion® , suggesting that NEXAR ™ -1.0 may be a viable alternative to Nafion® in hydrogen fuel cells.

During fuel cell operation the NEXAR ™ -1.0 / NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane-ionomer was thermally and mechanically stable. These results were supported by the power density results, where MEAs with NEXAR ™ -1.0 membrane-ionomers performed better than all the other MEAs.

From the above-mentioned results it became evident that the NEXAR ™ -1.0 variant was the optimal contender to substitute current state-of-the-art PFSA polymers.

Further, to understand the impact of the NEXAR ™ -1.0 ionomer on fuel cell performance, the composition of the ionomer and solvent mixture ratios in the catalyst ink solution were modified and investigated. Results suggested that NEXAR ™ -1.0 as an ionomer behaves similarly to Nafion® ionomers in fuel cell electrodes.

SEM analysis suggested that the amount of ionomer has a significant impact on the binding of ionomer to the catalyst particles, and consequently on the catalyst layer morphology. Therefore, there is an optimum catalyst / ionomer ratio of 2/1 for the Pt / C ionomer using NEXAR ™ -1.0 in fuel cell electrodes.

Conclusions

Ultimately, NEXAR ™ -1.0 is a potentially commercially viable greener substitute to Nafion® as a membrane and ionomer in PEM Fuel cell applications due to its high conductivity, however; alternative block compositions may improve the properties of the polymer to minimize resistances within the fuel cell to match the performance of Nafion® .

Overall Nafion® / Nafion® MEAs still showed the highest fuel cell performance when overall performance was taken into account but alternative hydrocarbon-based polymer compositions for the NEXAR ™ Polymer might provide a future non-fluorinated polymer as a  Nafion® substitute for PEM fuel cells .

Way forward

More analysis is required to perhaps get an accurate approximation of what variant of the NEXAR ™ polymer might cut the mark, future research may be focused upon exploring variants of Ion Exchange Capacities ranging from say 1 meq / g to 1.5 meq / g. But for now, it can be said that NEXAR ™ polymer shows promise as a viable replacement as a non-fluorinated membrane, and perhaps further research with more iterations of mechanical specs as well as chemical specs of the material we might witness a breakthrough.

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.memsci.2021.119330 : Sulfonated pentablock terpolymers as membranes and ionomers in hydrogen fuel cells , Journal of Membrane Science, 2021, 119330

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Highly durable platinum-palladium-based alloy electrocatalyst for PEM fuel cells

To decrease the consumption of fossil fuel-derived energy for transportation, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are one of the most promising clean power sources. Their performance, however, strongly depends on the efficiency and durability of the electrocatalyst used for the hydrogen and oxygen reactions occurring at the electrodes. Noble metals such as platinum and gold are still considered as the most efficient catalysts. At the same time, their high cost and scarcity are major road blocks for scale commercialization of these energy devices.

Various solutions of catalyst design are intensively investigated in order to make this technology economically successful. Searching for high catalyst activity and durability for fuel cells is in focus of current research and development. To date, state-of-the-art electrocatalysts are based on carbon materials with varying platinum loadings.

Ultra-high active platinum group metal (PGM) alloy catalyst

Although, recent research reported ultra-high activity of some metal alloy catalysts, problems still remain. Some of these issues are related to utilization of high atomic percentages of PGM (sometimes up to 75% Pt), poor durability and performance under industrial conditions. In search for new solutions, researchers of the State University of New York at Binghamton, USA, and their collaborators reported a new design in journal Nature Communication: a highly-durable alloy catalyst was obtained by alloying platinum and palladium at less than 50% with 3d-transition metals (Cu, Ni or Co) in ternary compositions.

They addressed the problem of severe de-alloying of conventional alloy catalysts under the operating conditions, resulting in declining performance. For the first time, dynamic re-alloying as a way to self-healing catalysts under realistic operating conditions has been demonstrated to improve fuel cell durability.

Alloy combination and composition

The wet-chemical method was used for synthesis of Pt20PdnCu80−n alloy nanoparticles with the desired platinum, palladium and copper percentages. The selected set of ternary alloy nanoparticles with tunable alloy combinations and compositions, contained a total content of platinum and palladium of less than 50%, keeping it lower than current PGM-based alloy catalysts. The incorporation of palladium into platinum nanomaterials enabled a lower degree of de-alloying and therefore better stability. Additionally, palladium is a good metal partner to platinum due to their catalytic synergy and their resistance to acid corrosion.

To reduce the need for platinum and palladium core catalysts, a third, non-noble transition metal played a central role in the catalytic synergy of alloying formation. Non-noble metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel or similar were used. The platinum-palladium alloy with base metals allowed the researchers to fine tune the thermodynamic stability of the catalysts.

Morphology and phase structure

The thermochemical treatment of carbon-supported nanoparticles was crucial for the structural optimization. The metal atoms in the catalytic nanoparticles were loosely packed with an expanded lattice constant. The oxidative and reductive treatments of the platinum-palladium alloy (PGM <50%) allowed a thermodynamically stable state in terms of alloying, re-alloying and lattice strains. The re-alloying process not only homogenized the inhomogeneous composition by inter-diffusion upon calcination of nanoparticles, but also provided an effective pathway for self-healing following de-alloying.

Single face-centered cubic type structures were observed in Pt20PdnCu80–n nanoparticles (n = 20, 40, 60, 80) nanoalloys. Copper-doping of platinum-palladium alloys reduced the lattice constant effectively, as shown by high energy X-ray diffraction. Maximized compressive strain and maximized activity of the Pt20Pd20Cu60 catalyst confirmed strong correlation between the lattice constants and the oxygen reduction activity.

The researchers demonstrated that the thermodynamically-stable Pt20Pd20Cu60/C catalyst exhibited not only the largest compressive strain after 20,000 cycles, but also high activity and high durability. The discovery that the alloy catalyst remains alloyed under fuel cell operating condition is in sharp contrast to the fully de-alloyed or phase-segregated platinum skin or platinum shell catalysts reported in almost all current literature.

The significance in understanding of the thermodynamic stability of the catalyst system is a potential paradigm shift of design, preparation, and processing of alloy electrocatalysts.

(Photo: Pixabay)

 

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Solid oxide fuel cells convert methane gas recovered from groundwater

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are highly efficient energy conversion devices and have low operating costs. They work at a temperature range of 800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius. This allows for the possibility of using internal conversion of hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen. Methane, methanol, petroleum, and other hydrocarbons can be converted to hydrogen (H2) directly within the fuel cell.

SOFCs have a number of additional advantages over traditional combustion engines or other types of fuel cells. For example, the high exhaust heat (over 800 degrees Celsius) makes them a useful application in the industry for cogeneration of electricity and heat. Because of combined cycles, high efficiency for electricity production can be achieved. In addition, due to the modular nature of SOFCs, they offer flexible planning of power generation capacity. This way, the use of SOFCs results in a further reduction of carbon dioxide emission.

The greatest advantage of SOFCs is that they can be operated with hydrocarbon fuels such as methane (CH4, the main component of natural gas). The direct use of methane eliminates the need for pre-reformers, thus reducing the complexity, size, and cost of the overall SOFC system.

Methane can be recovered from the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills, drinking water treatment plants, etc. The gas can also be recovered from groundwater because of the naturally occurring anaerobic degradation of organic matter in the subsurface or the infiltration of methane from natural gas reservoirs.

A research team from the Delft University of Technology assumed that the gas collected from groundwater treatment can be effectively used as fuel in SOFCs and put their hypothesis to a test. They published their results in the journal Journal of Cleaner Production. Currently, the methane recovered from the Drinking Water Treatment Plant (DWTP) of Spannenburg, Netherlands is either released into the atmosphere or flared, wasting a precious resource and contributing to further greenhouse emission in the form of CO2.

SOFCs provide the cleanest of the viable solutions of converting recovered methane into electrical energy, which, in turn, can be utilized by the DWTP. This process will decrease the power demands and simultaneously reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the DWTP.

The entire process was divided into the following steps:

  1. Methane was recovered from groundwater: The groundwater was pumped from the deep-wells directly to a system of vacuum towers, which remove 90% of the dissolved gas using a near vacuum of 0.2 bar.
  2. Subsequent treatment by plate aeration was done to remove the remaining 10% of methane in the groundwater.
  3. Tower aeration used to further remove CO2 before pellet softening process to lower hardness.

Recovered gas sampling:

200 mL of the recovered gas enriched in methane was used to determine the concentration of CH4, H2, Oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), carbon monoxide (CO), and CO2.

SOFC set up & thermodynamic approach:

A SOFC test station was used to carry out the experiments. The methane rich gas was fed to the anode and the open circuit potential was logged. Methane must be reformed to hydrogen and CO before electricity can effectively be generated in an SOFC.

Results:

The main components in the sampled gas were methane and CO2 with concentrations of 71 and 23 mol%, respectively. Additionally, the recovered gas contained 9 ppm of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which can permanently reduce the cell performance of an SOFC. Hydrogen sulphide was effectively removed (<0.1 ppm) with impregnated activated carbon

The use of CH4 recovered from the groundwater in an SOFC helps to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions and improve the sustainability of DWTPs. The recovered methane gas of the Spannenburg DWTP can be used to run a 915 kW SOFC system. This can supply 51.2% of the total electrical power demand of the plant and decreases greenhouse gas emissions by 17.6%, which is around 1794 tons of CO2.

The annual power generation of the SOFC system can be 8 GWh, which is about 3 GWh more than that produced by an internal combustion engine such as a gas turbine or piston engine.

In the future, the researchers will conduct a long-term tests to determine the safe operating condition of SOFC with respect to the carbon deposition issue. These tests will be extended to the SOFC stack level and pilot plant (in the range of a few kW systems)

(Photo: Indiamart)

Reference: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.125877 (A solid oxide fuel cell fueled by methane recovered from groundwater, 2021)

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Pilot-scale microbial fuel cells produce electricity from wastewater

In wastewater treatment, aeration is an energy-intensive but necessary process to remove contaminants. Pumps blow air into the wastewater to supply the microbes in the treatment tank with oxygen. In return, these bacteria oxidize organic substances to CO2 and hence remove them from the wastewater. This process is the industrial standard and has proven itself for over a century. If the researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have their way, that is changing now.

In their project, the researchers used a unique microbial fuel cell system they developed to replace aeration. Their novel wastewater treatment system cleans wastewater with the help of microorganisms that produce electricity. These microbes are called electrophiles.

The work should one day lead to less dependence on the energy-intensive treatment processes. Most of the energy in such processes is consumed in the activated sludge and its disposal. The energy consumption in water treatment produces around 4-5% of anthropogenic CO2 worldwide. to put that in perspective, according to the Air Transport Action Group in Geneva, international air transport produced 2.1% CO2 in 2019. The researchers published their work in the journal Bioelectrochemistry. In addition to cutting green house gas emissions, lowering the energy consumption of wastewater treatment would save billions in annual operation and maintenance costs.

Microbial fuel cells allow microbes to convert chemical energy into electricity, much like in a battery. In wastewater treatment, a microbial fuel cell can replace aeration while capturing electrons from wastewater organics. These electrons themselves are in turn a waste product of the microbial metabolism. All living organisms strive to discharge their excess electrons. This process is known as respiration or fermentation. The electricity generated the microbes can be used for useful applications in the wastewater treatment plant itself. The technology kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the treatment of the wastewater saves energy. On the other hand, it also generates electricity.

Up until now, microbial fuel cells have been used experimentally in wastewater treatment systems under ideal conditions, but under real and changing conditions they often fail. Microbial fuel cells lack regulation that controls the potential of anodes and cathodes and thus the cell potential. This can easily lead lead to a system failure. The entire cell must then be replaced.

To tackle this problem, the researchers added an additional reference electrode to the system that enables them to control their fuel cell. The system becomes more flexible. It can either work as a microbial fuel cell on its own and consume no energy, or it can be converted so that less energy is used for aeration while it purifies the wastewater more intensively. Frontis Energy uses a similar control system for its electrolysis reactors.

The system was operated for one year without major issues in the laboratory as well as a pilot in a wastewater treatment plant in Idaho. It removed contaminants at rates comparable to those in a classic aeration tanks. In addition, the microbial fuel cell could possibly be used completely independent of grid power. The researchers hope that one day it could be used in small wastewater treatment plants, such as cleaning livestock farms or in remote areas.

Despite the progress, there are still challenges to be overcome. They are complex systems that are difficult to build. At Frontis Energy we specialize in such systems and can help with piloting and commercialization.

(Photo: Wikipedia / National University of Singapore)

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Rechargeable PEM fuel cell with hydrogen storage polymer

Energy-converting devices such as fuel cells are among the most efficient and clean alternative energy-producing sources. They have the potential to replace fossil-fuel-based power generators. More specifically, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are promising energy conversion devices for residential, transportation and portable applications owing to their high power density and efficiency at low operating temperatures (ca. 60–80 °C). For the complete approach, with electrolytic hydrogen renewable sources, PEM fuel cells can become one of the cleanest energy carriers. This is because water is the final product of such energy conversion systems. Currently, Nafion™ membranes are regularly used as hydrogen barriers in these fuel cells.

A Proton exchange membrane

Sufficient hydrogen gas supply is crucial for practical application of the PEMFC systems. Currently, expensive high-pressure tanks (70 MPa) are state-of-the-art for hydrogen storage. Besides cost, there are other drawbacks such as portability and safety. In order to address these issues, alternative hydrogen storage materials have been extensively investigated. For example, metal hydrides and organic hydride materials, can fix and release hydrogen via covalent bonding.

Now, Dr. Junpei Miyake and colleagues of the University of Yamanashi, Japan, have proposed an “all-polymer” rechargeable PEMFC system (RCFC). The work has been published in Nature Communications Chemistry. Their strategy was to apply a hydrogen-storage polymer (HSP) sheet (a solid-state organic hydride) as a hydrogen-storage medium inside the fuel cell. With this approach, the issues like toxicity, flammability and volatility as well as concerns related to other components such as the fuel reservoir, feed pump and vaporizer were solved. The HSP structure is based on fluorenol/fluorenone groups that take over hydrogen-storage functionality.

In order to test the performance of their HSP-based rechargeable fuel cell, the scientists attached the HSP sheet of the membrane electrode to the catalyst layer of the anode. At the same time, the cathode side was operated as in a regular PEMFC. The researchers reported that an iridium catalyst has been applied to the inside of the HSP sheet to improve the hydrogen-releasing and fixing processes.

Fuel cell operation, cycle performance and durability were tested using cycles of 6 periodic steps. At first, hydrogen was infused into HSP sheet for 2 h, followed by nitrogen gas flushing to remove hydrogen from the anode. Then, heating of the cell up to 80°C to initiated hydrogen release from the HSP sheet. Together with oxygen gas supplied to the cathode side the fuel cell produced constant electrical current.

The team demonstrated that their HSP sheet released 20%, 33%, 51%, or 96% of the total fixed hydrogen gas in 20, 30, 60, or 360 min, respectively. The temperature was 80°C in the presence of the iridium catalyst. Also, the iridium catalyst could absorb up to 58 mol% hydrogen, which was considerably lower than that stored in the HSP. The maximum operation time was approximately 10.2 s / mgHSP (ca. 509 s for 50 mg of HSP) at a constant current density of 1 mA / cm2. The RCFCs reached cycleability of least 50 cycles. In addition, the utilization of a gas impermeable sulfonated poly-phenylene membrane (SPP-QP, another type of PEM) turned out to be a good strategy to enhance the opration time of the RCFC.

The advantageous features of the reported RCFC system include better safety, easier handling and lower weight. These are perfect for example in mobile application such as fuel cell vehicles. However, for the improvement of the RCFC performance, hydrogen storage capacity and kinetics (H2-releasing/fixing reactions) as well as catalyst stability need further improvements.

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CO2-neutral traffic

Fossil fuels have made tremendous social and economic advances pssible. This becomes clear, among other things, if you look at the increase in road traffic. Around 90 million vehicles were produced in 2019. In 2000 it was 60 million. It is assumed that the number of vehicles produced by 2030 will grow to 120 million. The increase in road mobility undoubtedly has a positive impact on social mobility and economic growth. However, this also makes the traffic increase a self-accelerating process. Economic growth in the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is particularly crucial in this regard. At the same time, it is expected that the proportion of electric vehicles, including hybrids, will also increase sharply. However, whether this is realistic, given the limited lithium reserves, can again be doubted.

In 2010 more than 1 billion cars were registered worldwide. With an annual increase of around 3%, it was already 1.3 billion in 2019. These emit around 6.0 billion tons of CO2 annually (out of a total of 33 billion tons worldwide), making them the largest expanding source of CO2. Energy-related CO2 emissions are generally continuing to rise, although this increase was briefly interrupted by the global health crisis of 2020. In addition, there are 20 to 30% of emissions from the production of fuels and the manufacture and disposal of vehicles.

Life cycle analyzes of vehicles with different drive concepts are the subject of many studies. When it comes to CO2 emissions, the energy source is crucial. Two main developments are discussed today: the electrification of the propulsion system (i.e. fully and partially electrified vehicles) and the electrification of fuels (i.e. hydrogen and synthetic fuels).

In the manufacture of synthetic fuels, water is broken down into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis with renewable electricity. Due to the temporary oversupply of renewable electricity, this energy is particularly cheap. The hydrogen can then be used in hydrogen vehicles propelled by fuel cells. Alternatively, CO2 can be converted into hydrocarbons with hydrogen and then used in conventional combustion engines in a climate-neutral manner. The advantage of fuel cell vehicles is their high efficiency and the low cost of electrolysis. The disadvantage is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. Converting from hydrocarbons to hydrogen would cost trillions. The cheaper alternative would be synthetic hydrocarbons. However, the development is still in its infancy and the production of synthetic fuels cannot yet be carried out on a large scale.

Hydrogen and synthetic fuels are a necessary addition to electromobility, especially for long-distance and load transport. The widespread view that the low level of efficiency of internal combustion engines makes these fuels uninteresting ignores the possibility of using them to store and transport energy and to enable climate neutrality for air and shipping traffic. If you compare the CO2 emissions from electric motors and electrified fuels, it becomes clear that these mainly depend on the CO2 pollution of the electricity used.

Synthetic fuel sources

The production of synthetic fuel requires renewable electricity, water and CO2. The technical processes are known. However, the first large-scale industrial plants are only in the planning phase. However, pilot projects such as that of the Canadian company Carbon Engineering have shown the technical feasibility of scaling. The generation costs depend mainly on the size of the plant and the electricity price, which results from the local conditions, the structure of the electricity market and the share of renewable electricity.

The decentralized production of these fuels brings not only climate neutrality but also geopolitical gains. Since CO2 and renewable energy – in contrast to lithium – are generally accessible resources, users of this technology become independent of energy imports. At Frontis Energy we think these are strong arguments in favor of synthetic fuels.

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Bioelectrically engineered fuel produced by yeasts

Yeasts such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae are, as the name suggests, used for large scale production of beer and other alcoholic beverages. Their high salt and ethanol tolerance not only makes them useful for the production of beverages, but also suitable for the production of combustion fuels at high alcohol concentrations. Besides ethanol, long-chain fusel alcohols are of high interest for biofuel production as well. Bioethanol is already mixed with gasoline and thus improves the CO2 balance of internal combustion engines. This liquid biofuel is made from either starch or lignocellulose. The production and use of bioethanol supports local economies, reduces CO2 emissions and promotes self-sufficiency. The latter is especially important for resource-depleted landlocked countries.

In order to efficiently produce ethanol and other alcohols from lignocellulose hydrolysates, yeasts must use both glucose and pentoses such as xylose and arabinose. This is because biomass is rich in both lignocellulose and thus glucose and xylose. However, this is also the main disadvantage of using Saccharomyces cerevisiae because it does not ferment xylose. Consequently, the identification of another yeast strains capable of fermenting both these sugars could solve the problem. Highly efficient yeasts can be grown in co-cultures with other yeasts capable of lignocellulose fermentation for ethanol production. Such a yeast is, for example, Wickerhamomyces anomalous.

To further improve ethanol production, bioelectric fermentation technology supporting traditional fermentation can be used. The microbial metabolism can thus be controlled electrochemically. There are many benefits of this technology. The fermentation process becomes more selective due to the application of an electrochemical potential. This, in turn, increases the efficiency of sugar utilization. In addition, the use of additives to control the redox equilibrium and the pH is minimized. Ultimately cell growth can be stimulated, further increasing alcohol production.

Such bioelectric reactors are galvanic cells. The electrodes used in such a bioelectric reactor may act as electron acceptors (anodes) or source (cathodes). Such electrochemical changes affect the metabolism and cell regulation as well as the interactions between the yeasts used. Now, a research group from Nepal (a resource-depleted landlocked country) has used new yeast strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Wickerhamomyces anomalous in a bioelectric fermenter to improve ethanol production from biomass. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Energy Research.

For their study, the researchers chose Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Wickerhamomyces anomalus as both are good ethanol producers. The latter is to be able to convert xylose to ethanol. After the researchers applied a voltage to the bioelectrical system, ethanol production doubled. Both yeasts formed a biofilm on the electrodes, making the system ideal for use as a flow-through system because the microorganisms are not washed out.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells in a brightfield microscopic image of 600-fold magnification (Foto: Amanda Luraschi)

The researchers speculated that the increased ethanol production was due to the better conversion of pyruvate to ethanol − the yeast’s central metabolic mechanism. The researchers attributed this to accelerated redox reactions at the anode and cathode. The applied external voltage polarized the ions present in the cytosol, thus facilitating the electron transfer from the cathode. This and the accelerated glucose oxidation probably led to increased ethanol production.

Normally, pyruvate is converted into ethanol in fermentation yeast. External voltage input can control the kinetics of glucose metabolism in Saccharomyces cerevisiae under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Intracellular and transplasmembrane electron transfer systems play an important role in electron transport across the cell membrane. The electron transfer system consists of cytochromes and various redox enzymes, which confer redox activity to the membrane at certain sites.

The authors also found that an increased salt concentration improved conductivity and therefore ethanol production. The increased ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass may have been also be due to the presence of various natural compounds that promoted yeast growth. When the cellulose acetate membrane was replaced by a Nafion™ membrane, ethanol production also increased. This was perhaps due to improved transport of xylose through the Nafion™ membrane as well as the decrease of the internal resistance. A further increase of ethanol production was observed when the bioelectrical reactor was operated with fine platinum particles coated on the platinum anode and neutral red deposited on the graphite cathode.

Several yeast cultures from left to right: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Candida utilis, Aureobasidium pullulans, Trichosporum cutaneum, Saccharomycopsis capsularis, Saccharomycopsis lipolytica, Hanseniaspora guilliermondii, Hansenula capsulata, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, Saccharomyces rouxii, Rhodotorula rubra, Phaffia rhodozyba, Cryptococcus laurentii, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, Rhodotorula pallida

At Frontis Energy, we think that the present study is promising. However, long-chain fusel alcohols should be considered in the future as they are less volatile and better compatible with current internal combustion engines. These can also be easily converted into the corresponding long-chain hydrocarbons.