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Remarkable performance of Fe–N–C cathode electrocatalysts in anion-exchange membrane fuel cells (AEMFC)

Catalysts for low-temperature fuel cells are permanently improved to overcome high costs. Only when low-temperature fuel cells are competitive with internal combustion engines will they be an alternative power source for transportation or even portable devices. The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) milestones for the cost of a light-duty vehicle fuel cell system is $30 per kWnet. However current costs of a proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells ranges between $45 and $51 kWnet.

Challenged to reduce fuel cell production cost, researchers have suggested changing the fuel cell operating environment from acidic pH to alkaline. This will require to replace PEM by anion-exchange membranes (AEM) in fuel cells. The true advantage of AEM over PEM fuel cells is the cost reduction through cheaper membranes. Additionally, a broader spectrum of materials could be used and the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) kinetics would be improved. Yet, acidic conditions corrode non-precious metals quickly while at the same time the high loading of platinum group metals (PGM) catalysts  need to be reduced as well.

Synthesis of Fe-N-C electrocatalyst and it structure

Researchers from the University of South Carolina, Columbia (USA) together with their partners recently reported in Nature Energy the remarkable performance of inexpensive Fe-N-C cathode catalysts with single-atom Fe-Nx active sites in AEM fuel cell. The Fe-N-C catalyst was constructed in respect to two important aspects: increase the average pore size (ranging from 5-40 nm, 1 µm) as well as the level of graphitization. Both measures reduce the hydrophobicity of the catalyst layer. To optimize their catalyst’s performance, the researchers went through an iterative process using various material characterization techniques. Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy mapping was used to ensure the catalyst composition was homogeneous. Iron atoms in the catalyst were present as single atoms, which was confirmed by Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy imaging.

Catalyst performance and integration in AEM fuel cells

The electrochemical analyses carried out by the scientists showed that their Fe-N-C catalyst achieved high ORR activity via four-electron O2 reduction. In this reduction reaction, oxygen is directly reduced to water without the intermediate hydrogen peroxide step. The yield of hydrogen peroxide as function of potential over the entire experimental range was less than 1% – a good result for a non-precious metal catalyst. The current density of the reaction was of 7 mA / cm2.

The Fe-N-C catalyst was used on the cathode of a hydrogen-oxygen AEM fuel cell. An high peak power density of 2 W / cm2 was reported. This performance is the highest reported value for polymer membrane fuel cells (AEM and PEM) using a non-precious metal catalyst. Especially the 4x lower loading of Fe-N-C catalyst compared with previous reports makes this type of fuel cell economically interesting. Moreover, the electrocatalyst was stable at voltages of 0.6 V for more than 100 hours.

To evaluate feasibility of Fe-N-C cathode for more practical application, the fuel cell was tested in the air flow as cathode oxidant. The achieved current density was 3.6 mA / cm2 at 0.1 V with a peak power density of over 1 W / cm2. These results again show the highest reported values in the literature up to date compared to other hydrogen-air AEM fuel cell.

Fuel cell test target DOE-criteria

The cell configuration simulating more realistic operation was intended to benchmark against the DOE targets and the DOE2022 milestones. Cathodes with 0.6 mg Pt / cm2 and a 1 mg Fe-N-C per cm2 were compared. The paired cell was operated under conditions similar to the DOE-defined protocol: 0.9 V iR-free, cell temperature 80°C and 100 kPa partial pressure of O2 and H2. A steady-state current density reached at 0.9 V (iR-free) was approx. 100 mA / cm2. This was more than twice the DOE target.

Finally, the next configuration was designed using the DOE2022 milestones protocol postulating that the total precious metal loading should be less than 0.2 mg Pt / cm2. This was achieved by integrating Fe-N-C cathode with low-loading PtRu/C anodes (0.125 mg PtRu per cm2). This cell reached a peak power density of 1.3 W / cm2 under hydrogen-oxygen operation. Recalculating this value to a specific power output of 16 W per mg Pt results in the highest value of any AEM fuel cell ever reported in the literature.

It has been demonstrated that the Fe-N-C electrocatalyst can compete with noble metal-based catalysts for AEM fuel cells. The reported cell configuration provided remarkable performance in terms of activity and durability under fuel cell condition.

Methodology and electrode preparation

  • Rotating ring disc system – RRDE, was used for evaluation of electrochemical performance for ORR of Fe-N-C catalyst.
  • Fe-N-C catalyst was prepared with higher density of Fe-Nx centers since it has been reported that a higher carbon proportion also results in a higher number of positions in the graphene sheets available for insertion of active sites.
  • For the comparison Pt/C electrode was analyzed.
  • In the electrochemical cell the electrodes were: working electrode – catalyst was cast on the GC disk and stabilized with 5% Nafion® ;
  • Platinum mesh was used as counter electrode and Ag/AgCl as reference electrode, 0.1 M KOH was used as electrolyte.
  • For the tests in anion-exchange membrane fuel cell, gas diffusion electrodes were used: Anode was prepared with low-loading PtRu/C material (0.125 mg PtRu per cm2, 0.08 mg Pt per cm2), while for the cathode Fe-N-C catalyst was used – both were prepared by spraying catalyst ink onto a gas diffusion layer.

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Water desalination and fluoride ions removal from water using electrodialysis

Clean freshwater is of the utmost importance for our health. Despite its central role for our lives, progressing global industrialization threatens freshwater resources around the world. Albeit a vital trace element, fluoride is a serious public health threat. Absorbed in larger quantities for a long time, fluoride causes fluorosis, a form permanent poising responsible for irreparable bone damage.

Fluoride bearing rocks are particularly common in India. Fluoride is leached into adjacent aquifers and contaminates the soil. Sometimes, the concentration of fluoride ions in Indian aquifers exceeds 30 mg/L. Toxic concentrations of 20-80 mg / day over a period of 10 to 20 years cause irreparable damage to the human body.

Fluoride ions in groundwater are removed for water treatment using membranes. However, such membranes foul easily, for example by bacteria present in wastewater or other deposits.  Fouling can become a serious threat to public health. Therefore, a particular focus in membrane research is on the development of fluoride removing membranes that prevent fouling. It can be accomplished when bacterial growth is slowed down or inhibited entirely. For water treatment, antimicrobial surface modifications are used in high-quality membranes for ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, reverse osmosis and electrodialysis.

Electrodialysis is often used to remove water contamination, because only little energy is needed for the process. For electrodialysis membranes, salt deposits are an economic risk that is to be avoided. Precipitates can occur when the concentration of bivalent ions in the water is too high. Added to precipitates comes the risk of biofouling caused by microbial growth. Both affect the performance of electrodialysis membranes, causing economic losses as the membranes must be cleaned or replaced. For efficient water treatment, it is therefore important to improve the thermal and mechanical properties of the membranes.

A group of scientists have synthesized a composite anion exchange membrane for water-salt altitude and fluoride ion removal by electrodialysis that has improved antimicrobial properties. She published her results in the journal ACS ES&T Water. The consortium consisted of researchers of the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research in Ghaziabad, India and the University of Tokyo.

Their anion exchange membranes are based on cross-linked terpolymers with built-in silver nanoparticles to slow microbial growth. The membranes are suitable for water desalination and fluoride ion removal by electrodialysis. The preparation of the terpolymers and polyacrylonitrile copolymers was carried out by N-alkylation using various alkyl halides. N-alkylation of the terpolymer through various alkyl groups affected the water absorption, hydrophobicity, ion transport and ionic conductivity of the membrane. Long alkyl groups increased the effectiveness of fluoride removal as well as the oxidative and physical stability of the membranes. The suitability of the composite membranes was verified by testing removal efficiency of fluoride ions (5.5 and 11 mg/L) from a sodium chloride solution (2 g/L) by electrodialysis at an applied voltage of 2 V.

The incorporation of 0.03% silver nanoparticles in the quaternized polymer caused the desired antimicrobial effect. The uniform distribution of silver nanoparticles in the liquid and solid phases was detected by transmission electron microscopy and atomic force microscopy. The attachment of bacteria was quantified counting colony forming units and 100x lower when silver nanoparticles were present in the membrane. The reduced microbial attachment to the membrane surface is therefore due to the antimicrobial effect of the silver nanoparticles. The small amount of 0.03% silver nanoparticles was sufficient to achieve desired antimicrobial effect in the membrane.

After 15 days and at a water temperature of 50°C, no detectable silver leaching occurred. The novel membranes are thus an improved anion exchange solution with antimicrobial properties for efficient removal of fluorine and desalination by electrodialysis.


The entire synthesis was carried out in four steps:

  • Step 1: Silver nitrate was diluted with deionized water to produce a 30 mm solution
  • Step 2: Terpolymer and quaternized terpolymers were prepared by free radical polymerization
  • Step 3: Composite additives were prepared by the reduction of silver nitrate with sodium borohydrite in the presence of dimethylformamide
  • Step 4: The membrane was networked with the silver nanoparticles

Characterization of the anion exchange membrane

The membrane was characterized using several analytical methods:

  • UV-VIS and IR spectroscopy
  • Incorporation of silver nanoparticles by scanning electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy and transmission electron microscopy
  • Thermal stability, tensile properties, solubility and further physicochemical and electrochemical properties of the silver nanoparticle composite
  • Desalination and fluoride removal
  • The effectiveness of silver nanoparticles on microbial attachment
  • Energy consumption and efficiency during water desalination and fluoride removal by the composite membrane
  • Membrane stability with respect to pH, temperature and Fenton’s Reagent was evaluated


Pal et al. 2021 “Composite Anion Exchange Membranes with Antibacterial Properties for Desalination and Fluoride Ion Removal” ACS ES&T Water 1 (10), 2206-2216,

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