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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.


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.


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: : Sulfonated pentablock terpolymers as membranes and ionomers in hydrogen fuel cells , Journal of Membrane Science, 2021, 119330

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Making zinc-air batteries rechargeable using developed cobalt(II) oxide as a catalyst

Zinc-air batteries are a promising alternative to expensive lithium-ion batteries. Compared with lithium-ion technology, zinc-air batteries have a greater energy density, very low production cost, and superior safety. However, their fundamental inability to recharge has lowered their wide-scale adoption.

Zinc-air batteries use charged zinc particles to store large amounts of electricity at a time. When electricity is required, the charged zinc is combined with oxygen from the air (and water), releasing the stored electricity and producing zincate. This process is known as oxygen reduction reaction (ORR).

Theoretically, this zincate can again be broken down into oxygen and zinc ions by passing electricity through it. This process, in turn, is called oxygen evolution reaction (OER). Using these reactions, zinc-air batteries can be made rechargeable, competing with lithium-ion batteries.

The major challenge of the recharging process is the sluggish kinetics of the reactions which lead to poor cycle life. These batteries require a catalyst that could potentially enhance the ORR and the OER reactions, making their kinetics fast. Hence, the development of highly efficient catalysts is of paramount importance for rechargeable zinc-air batteries.

Previous studies have suggested transition-metal oxides as great bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts because of their ability to provide sites for the reversible adsorption of oxygen. But the methods involved in creating well-defined defects for reversible adsorption of oxygen in such oxides are challenging.

To investigate the use of cobalt(II) oxide nanosheets deposited on stainless steel or carbon cloth as a bifunctional catalyst, a group of researchers from different universities of China and Canada collaborated and conducted several experiments. Their research findings were published in the journal Nano Energy .

Research approach

Preparation of catalyst

Different nano-structures were prepared using simple heat treatment and electrodeposition to test them as bifunctional electrocatalysts. The type of nano-structures prepared were:

      • Cobalt hydroxide  nanosheets on steel and carbon cloth
      • Layered cobalt (II) oxide nanosheet on steel and carbon cloth
      • Cobalt (II) oxide on steel
      • Layered cobalt tetroxide nanosheet on steel

Material Characterization

To understand the characteristics of the prepared samples, various analyticaland tests were carried out:

Charging and discharging tests

Later discharge and charge cycling tests of single cells were operated by the battery testing system.


The simple heat treatment strategy created oxygen vacancy sites. According to the authors, layered cobalt-oxide nano-sheets exhibited excellent bifunctional ORR / OER performance. Investigations suggested abundant oxygen vacancies and cobalt sites be the reason for enhanced ORR / OER performance. Later, the developed layered cobalt-oxide nanosheets on steel were used as an electrode in a rechargeable zinc-air flow battery and a record-breaking cycle life of over 1,000 hours with nearly unchanged voltage was observed. Galvanostatic discharging-charging cycles also demonstrated long life and high energy efficiency.

This research carried out provides a new method to design highly efficient bifunctional ORR / OER catalysts that could be used to enhance the cycle life of rechargeable zinc-air flow batteries. At Frontis Energy we are looking forward to industrial applications.

(Photo: Engineersforum)

Reference: Wu et al., Cobalt (II) oxide nanosheets with rich oxygen vacancies as highly efficient bifunctional catalysts for ultra-stable rechargeable Zn-air flow battery, 2021

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Production of Green Hydrogen through exposure of nano particles to sunlight

The demand for energy is increasing and raw material for the fossil fuel economy is diminishing. Moreover, the emission of gases from fossil fuel usage significantly degrades air quality. The carbon by-products produced from these fossil fuels severely affect the climate.

Hence, there is a need to find a renewable energy resource, that can be produced, stored, and used easily as per requirement. Hydrogen can be a promising energy resource as it is an abundantly available, non-toxic resource, and can be readily used to store excess electrical energy.

Hydrogen when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell produces electricity and the by-products obtained are water and heat. Based on the method of production of hydrogen it is categorized as blue hydrogen and green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as methane, gasoline, coal while green hydrogen is produced from non-fossil fuels / water. The cleanest way to produce eco-friendly hydrogen is via electrolysis of water where water is electrolyzed to separate hydrogen and oxygen. Renewable energy can be used as a power electrolyzer to produce hydrogen from water. Solar driven photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting is one of the common method used these days. In photo electrochemical (PEC) water splitting, hydrogen is produced from water using sunlight.

PEC cells comprise of a working photoelectrode and a counter electrode. The photoelectrode consists of semiconductor material with a band gap to absorb solar light and generate an electron-hole pair. The photo-generated charges are responsible for the oxidation of water and its reduction into hydrogen. The PEC suffer devices from low stability and efficiency.

The research team from the  Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) along with researchers from the Institute of Chemistry and Processes for Energy, Environment and Health (ICPEES) , a CNRS-University of Strasbourg joint research lab published a way to significantly improve the efficiency of water dissociation to produce hydrogen by the development of sunlight photosensitive-nanostructured electrodes.

A comparative study between cobalt and nickel oxide nanoparticles deposited onto TiO 2 nanotubes prepared through anodization was carried out. The TiO 2 nanotubes were decorated with CoO (cobalt oxide) and NiO (nickel oxide) nanoparticles using the reactive pulsed laser deposition method. The surface loadings of CoO or NiO nanoparticles were controlled by the number of laser ablation pulses. The efficiency of CoO and NiO nanoparticles as co-catalysts for photo-electrochemical water splitting was studied by cyclic voltammetry, under both simulated sunlight and visible light illuminations and by external quantum efficiency measurements

The entire research work was carried out in the following steps:

Catalyzed Green Hydrogen synthesis
Steps followed to improve the efficiency of hydrogen production

(Source: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020)

In this study Cobalt (CoO) and Nickel (NiO) oxides were considered as effective co-catalysts for splitting water molecules. Both co-catalysts improved photo-electrochemical conversion of ultra violet as well visible light photons.

However, CoO nanoparticles were found to be the best co-catalyst under visible light illumination, with a Photo Conversion Efficiency almost 10 times higher than for TiO 2 . The performance of CoO nanoparticles got enhanced in the visible spectral region (λ> 400 nm). The possible reason can be a consequence of their visible bandgap which enables them to harvest more photon in the 400-500 nm range and transferring effectively the photo-generated electrons to TiO 2 nanotubes.

At Frontis Energy we are exited about these new discovery to improve hydrogen production from sunlight and hope to see an industrial application soon.

(Image: Engineersforum)

Reference: Favet et al ., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells , 2020

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Cheap, high-octane biofuel discovered

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a cheap method for producing high-octane gasoline from methanol. They recently published their method in the journal Nature Catalysis. Methanol can be synthesized from CO2 via various routes, as we reported last year. Biomass, such as wood, is one possibility.

The production of biofuels from wood, however, is too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. To find a solution to this problem, the researchers combined their basic research with an economic analysis. The researchers initially aimed at the most expensive part of the process. Thereafter, the researchers found methods to reduce these costs with methanol as an intermediate.

So far, the cost of converting methanol to gasoline or diesel was about $1 per gallon. The researchers have now reached a price of about $0.70 per gallon.

The catalytic conversion of methanol into gasoline is an important research area in the field of CO2 recovery. The traditional method is based on multi-stage processes and high temperatures. It is expensive, producing low quality fuel in small quantities. Thus, it is not competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

Hydrogen deficiency was the initially problem the researcher had to overcome. Hydrogen is the key energy containing element in hydrocarbons. The researchers hypothesized that using the transition metal copper would solve this problem, which it did. They estimated that the copper-infused catalyst resulted in 38% more yield at lower cost.

By facilitating the reintegration of C4 byproducts during the homologation of dimethyl ether, the copper zeolite catalyst enabled this 38% increase in product yield and a 35% reduction in conversion cost compared to conventional zeolite catalysts. Alternatively, C4 by-products were passed to a synthetic kerosene meeting five specifications for a typical jet fuel. Then, the fuel synthesis costs increased slightly. Even though the cost savings are minimal, the resulting product has a higher value.

Apart from the costs, the new process offers users further competitive advantages. For example, companies can compete with ethanol producers for credits for renewable fuels (if the carbon used comes from biogas or household waste). The process is also compatible with existing methanol plants that use natural gas or solid waste to produce syngas.

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Ammonia energy storage #3

As a loyal reader or loyal reader of our blog, you will certainly remember our previous publications on ammonia energy storage. There, we describe possible ways to extract ammonia from the air, as well as the recovery of its energy in the form of methane (patent pending WO2019/079908A1). Since global food production requires large amounts of ammonia fertilizers, technologies for extraction from air is already very mature. These technologies are essentially all based on the Haber-Bosch process, which was industrialized at the beginning of the last century. During this process, atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is reduced to ammonia (NH3). Despite the simplicity of the molecules involved, the cleavage of the strong nitrogen−nitrogen bonds in N2 and the resulting nitrogen−hydrogen bonds pose a major challenge for catalytic chemists. The reaction usually takes place under harsh conditions and requires a lot of energy, i.e. high reaction temperatures, high pressures and complicated combinations of reagents, which are also often expensive and energy-intensive to manufacture.

Now, a research group led by Yuya Ashida has published an article in the renowned journal Nature, in which they show that a samarium compound in aqueous solution combined with a molybdenum catalyst can form ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. The work opens up new possibilities in the search for ways to ammonia synthesis under ambient conditions. Under such conditions, less energy is required to produce ammonia, resulting in higher energy efficiency for energy storage. In today’s Haber-Bosch process, air and hydrogen gas are combined via an iron catalyst. The resulting global ammonia production of this process ranges from 250 to 300 tonnes per minute, delivering fertilizers that provide nearly 60% of the world’s population (The Alchemy of Air, available at Amazon).

Comparison of different approaches to produce ammonia. Top: In the industrial Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia (NH3), nitrogen gas (N2) reacts with hydrogen molecules (H2), typically in the presence of an iron catalyst. The process requires high temperatures and pressures, but is thermodynamically ideal because only little energy is wasted on side reactions. Center: Nitrogenase enzymes catalyze the reaction of six-electron (e) nitrogen and six protons (H+) under ambient conditions to form ammonia. However, two additional electrons and protons form one molecule of H2. The conversion of ATP (the biological energy “currency”) into ADP drives the reaction. This reaction has a high chemical overpotential. It consumes much more energy than is needed for the actual ammonia forming reaction. Bottom: In the new reaction proposed by Ashida and colleagues, a mixture of water and samarium diiodide (SmI2) is converted to ammonia using nitrogen under ambient conditions and in the presence of a molybdenum catalyst. SmI2 weakens the O−H bonds of the water and generates the hydrogen atoms, which then react with atmospheric nitrogen.

On industrial scale, ammonia is synthesized at temperatures that exceed 400°C and pressures of approximately 400 atmospheres. These conditions are often referred to as “harsh”. During the early days, these harsh conditions were difficult to control. Fatal accidents were not uncommon in the early years of the Haber-Bosch development. This has motivated many chemists to find “milder” alternatives. After all, this always meant searching for new catalysts to lower operating temperatures and pressures. The search for new catalysts would ultimately reduce capital investment in the construction of new fertilizer plants. Since ammonia synthesis is one of the largest producers of carbon dioxide, this would also reduce the associated emissions.

Like many other chemists before them, the authors have been inspired by nature. Nitrogenase enzymes carry out the biological conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a process called nitrogen fixation. On recent Earth, this process is the source of nitrogen atoms in amino acids and nucleotides, the elemental building blocks of life. In contrast to the Haber-Bosch process, nitrogenases do not use hydrogen gas as a source of hydrogen atoms. Instead, they transfer protons (hydrogen ions, H+) and electrons (e) to each nitrogen atom to form N−H bonds. Although nitrogenases fix nitrogen at ambient temperature, they use eight protons and electrons per molecule N2. This is remarkable because the stoichiometry of the reaction requires only six each. This way, nitrogenases provide the necessary thermodynamic drive for nitrogen fixation. The excess of hydrogen equivalents means that nitrogenases have a high chemical overpotential. That is, they consume much more energy than would actually be needed for nitrogen fixation.

The now published reaction is not the first attempt to mimic the nitrogenase reaction. In the past, metal complexes were used with proton and electron sources to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. The same researchers have previously developed 8 molybdenum complexes that catalyze nitrogen fixation in this way. This produced 230 ammonia molecules per molybdenum complex. The associated overpotentials were significant at almost 1,300 kJ per mole nitrogen. In reality, however, the Haber-Bosch process is not so energy-intensive given the right catalyst is used.

The challenge for catalysis researchers is to combine the best biological and industrial approaches to nitrogen fixation so that the process proceeds at ambient temperatures and pressures. At the same time, the catalyst must reduce the chemical overpotential to such an extent that the construction of new fertilizer plants no longer requires such high capital investments. This is a major challenge as there is no combination of acids (which serve as a proton source) and reducing agents (the electron sources) available for the fixation at the thermodynamic level of hydrogen gas. This means that the mixture must be reactive enough to form N−H bonds at room temperature. In the now described pathway with molybdenum and samarium, the researchers have adopted a strategy in which the proton and electron sources are no longer used separately. This is a fundamentally new approach to catalytic ammonia synthesis. It makes use of a phenomenon known as coordination-induced bond weakening. In the proposed path, the phenomenon is based on the interaction of samarium diiodide (SmI2) and water.

Water is stable because of its strong oxygen-hydrogen bonds (O−H). However, when the oxygen atom in the water is coordinated with SmI2, it exposes its single electron pair and its O−H bonds are weakened. As a result, the resulting mixture becomes a readily available source of hydrogen atoms, protons and electrons, that is. The researchers around Yuya Ashida use this mixture with a molybdenum catalyst to fix nitrogen. SmI2-water mixtures are therefore particularly suitable for this type of catalysis. In them, a considerable coordination-induced bond weakening was previously measured, which was used inter alia for the production of carbon-hydrogen bonds.

The extension of this idea to catalytic ammonia synthesis is remarkable for two reasons. First, the molybdenum catalyst facilitates ammonia synthesis in aqueous solution. This is amazing because molybdenum complexes in water are usually degraded. Second, the use of coordination-induced bond weakening provides a new method for nitrogen fixation at ambient conditions. This also avoids the use of potentially hazardous combinations of proton and electron sources which are a fire hazard. The authors’ approach also works when ethylene glycol (HOCH2CH2OH) is used instead of water. Thus, the candidates for proton and electron sources are extended by an additional precursor.

Ashida and colleagues propose a catalytic cycle for their process in which the molybdenum catalyst initially coordinates to nitrogen and cleaves the N−N bond to form a molybdenum nitrido complex. This molybdenum nitrido complex contains the molybdenum-nitrogen triple bond. The SmI2-water mixture then delivers hydrogen atoms to this complex, eventually producing ammonia. The formation of N−H bonds with molybdenum nitrido complexes represents a significant thermodynamic challenge since the N−H bonds are also weakened by the molybdenum. Nevertheless, the disadvantages are offset by the reduction of the chemical overpotential. The SmI2 not only facilitates the transfer of hydrogen atoms, but also keeps the metal in a reduced form. This prevents undesired molybdenum oxide formation in aqueous solution.

The new process still has significant operational hurdles to overcome before it can be used on an industrial scale. For example, SmI2 is used in large quantities, which generates a lot of waste. The separation of ammonia from aqueous solutions is difficult in terms of energy consumption. However, if the process were used for energy storage in combination with our recovery method, the separation would be eliminated from the aqueous solution. Finally, there is still a chemical overpotential of about 600 kJ/mol. Future research should focus on finding alternatives to SmI2. These could be based, for example, on metals that occur more frequently than samarium and promote coordination-induced bond weakening as well. As Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch have experienced, the newly developed method will probably take some time for development before it becomes available on industrial scale.

(Photo: Wikipedia)