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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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Light-driven process turns greenhouse gases into valuable products

Much research has been done in order to reduce the use of fossil petroleum products as fuels. In that respect syngas (synthetic gas) seems as a great opportunity for sustainable energy developments. Syngas is the mixture composed of hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) as its main components. It represents an important chemical feedstock used widely for industrial processes for generating chemicals and fuels:

Global use of syngas in industrial processes.

Syngas can be produced from methane (CH4) in a reforming reaction with water (H2O), oxygen (O2) or carbon dioxide (CO2). The process called methane dry reforming (MDR) can be combined with carbon dioxide:

CH4 + CO2 → 2 H2 + 2 CO

It is an environmentally friendly path, turning two greenhouse gases into a valuable chemical feedstock.

However, the MDR is process requires chemical catalysts and high temperatures in the range between 700 − 1,000°C. Usually, it suffers from coke deposition and, in consequence, catalyst deactivation.

Some chemists have recently demonstrated that light, and not heat, might be a more effective solution for this energy-hungry reaction.

The photocatalytic solution

A team of researchers at the Rice University in Houston, Texas, together with colleagues from Princeton University and the University of California have developed superior light-stimulated catalysts that can efficiently power MDR reactions without any heat input. This work has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Energy.

They have reported a highly efficient and coke-resistant plasmonic photocatalyst containing precisely one ruthenium (Ru) atom for every 99 copper (Cu) atoms. The isolated single-atom of Ru obtained on Cu antenna nanoparticles provides high catalytic activity for the MDR reaction. On the other side, Cu antennas allow strong light adsorption and under illumination and deliver hot electrons to ruthenium atoms. The researchers suggested that both, hot-carrier generation and single-atom structure are essential for excellent catalytic performance in terms of efficiency and coking resistance.

The optimal Cu-Ru ratio have been investigated in synthesized series of CuxRuy catalysts with varying molar ratios of plasmonic metal (Cu) and catalytic metal (Ru), where x,y are atomic percentage of Cu and Ru. Overall, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 was the most promising composition in terms of selectivity, stability and activity. In comparison to pure Cu nanoparticles, the Cu19.8Ru0.2 mix exhibits increased photocatalytic reaction rates (approx. 5.5 times higher) and improved stability with its performance maintained over 20 h period. Calculations showed that isolated Ru-atoms on Cu lower the activation barrier for the methane dehydrogenation step in comparison to pure Cu without promoting undesired coke formation.

In addition, the research has been supported by different methods (CO-DRIFTS with DFT) in order to unravel and prove single-atom Ru structures on Cu nanoparticles occurring in Cu19.9Ru0.1 and Cu19.8Ru0.2 compositions.

The comparison between thermocatalytic and photocatalytic activity at the same surface for MDR has also been demonstrated. The thermocatalytic reaction rate at 726°C (approx. 60 µmol CH4 / g / s) was less than 25% of photocatalytic reaction rate under white-light illumination with no external heat (approx. 275 µmol CH4 / g / s). This enhancement in the activity is attributed to the hot-carrier generated mechanism which is predominant in the photocatalytic MDR. The role of the hot-carrier is an increase in C−H activation rates on Ru as well as improved H2 desorption.

The scientists also reported the catalyst achieving a turnover frequency of 34 mol H2  / mol Ru / s and photocatalytic stability of 50 h under focused white light illumination (19.2 W / cm2) with no external heat.

As the synthesized photocatalysts is primarily based on Cu which is an abundant element, this approach provides a promising, sustainable catalyst operating at low-temperatures for MDR. This allows cheaper syngas production at higher rates, bringing us closer to a clean burning carbon fuel.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Nanomaterials in bio-electrical systems could improve performance

Since Professor Potter’s discovery of the ability of microbes to turn organic molecules into electricity using microbial fuel cells (MFC) more than a century ago (Potter MC, 1911, Proc Roy Soc Lond Ser B 84:260–276), much research was done to improve the performance. Unfortunately, this did not not produce an economically viable technology. MFCs never made it out of the professors’ class rooms. This may change now that we have advanced nanomaterials available.

The testing of nanomaterials in bio-electrical systems has experienced a Cambrian explosion. The focus usually was on electrodes, membranes, and in the electrolyte with infinite possibilities to find high performing composites. The benefits of such materials include a large surface area, cost savings, and scalability. All are required to successfully commercialize bio-electrical systems. The large-scale commercial application could be wastewater treatment. In our recently published literature survey we discovered that there is no common benchmark for performance, as it is usual in photovoltaics or for batteries. To normalize our findings, we used dollar per peak power capacity as ($/Wp) as it is standard in photovoltaics. The median cost for air cathodes of MFCs is $4,700 /Wp ($2,800 /m²). Platinum on carbon (Pt/C) and carbon nanofibers are the best performing materials with $500 /Wp (Pt/C $2,800 /m²; nanofibers $2,000 /m²).

We found that carbon-based nanomaterials often deliver performance comparable to Pt/C. While MFCs are still far away from being profitable, microbial electrolysis cells already are. With these new carbon-based nanomaterials, MFCs however, are moving closer to become an economic reality. Graphene and carbon nanotubes are promising materials when they are combined with minerals such as manganese or iron oxides. However, the price of graphene is still too expensive to let MFCs become an economic reality in wastewater treatment. The costs of microbial electrolysis, however, are already so low that it is a serious alternative to traditional wastewater treatment as we show in the featured image above. For high strength wastewater, a treatment plant can in fact turn into a power plant with excess power being offered to surrounding neighborhoods. Reducing the costs of microbial electrolysis is accomplished by using a combination of cheap steel and graphite.

Relationship between MEC reactor capacity and total electrode cost including anode and cathode. Errors are standard deviations of four different tubular reactor designs. Anodes are graphite granules and cathodes are steel pipes


Graphite, in turn, is the precursor of graphene, a promising material for MFC electrodes. When graphite flakes are reduced to a few graphene layers, some of the most technologically important properties of the material are greatly improved. These include the overall surface and the elasticity. Graphene is therefore a very thin graphite. Many manufacturers of graphene use this to sell a material that is really just cheap graphite. In the journal Advanced Materials Kauling and colleagues published a systematic study of graphene from sixty manufacturers and find that many high-priced graphene products consist mainly of graphite powder. The study found that less than 10% of the material in most products was graphene. None of the tested products contained more than 50% graphene. Many were heavily contaminated, most likely with chemicals used in the production process. This can often lead to a material having catalytic properties which would not have been observed without contamination, as reported by Wang and Pumera.

There are many methods of producing graphene. One of the simplest is the deposition on a metallic surface, as we describe it in our latest publication:

Single-layer graphene (SLG) and multilayer graphene (MLG) are synthesized by chemical vapor deposition (CVD) from a carbon precursor on catalytic metal surfaces. In a surface-mediated CVD process, the carbon precursor, e.g. Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is decomposed on the metal surface, e.g. Cu or Ni. In order to control the number of graphene layers formed, the solubility of the carbon precursor on the metal catalyst surface must be taken into account. Due to the low solubility of the precursor in Cu, SLG can be formed. It is difficult to grow SLG on the surface of a metal with a high affinity for the precursor.

The protocol is a cheap, safe and simple method for the synthesis of MLG films by CVD in 30-45 minutes in a chemistry lab. A nickel foil is submersed in acetic acid for etching and then transferred to an airtight quartz tube. The same protects the system from ambient oxygen and water vapor. Nitrogen gas is bubbled through the IPA and the resulting IPA saturated gas is passed through the closed system. The exhaust gases are washed in a beaker with a water or a gas wash bottle. The stream is purged for 5 minutes at a rate of about 50 cc/min. As soon as the flame reaches a Meker burner 575-625 °C, it is positioned under the nickel foil, so that sufficient energy for the formation of graphene is available. The flame is extinguished after 5-10 minutes to stop the reaction and to cool the system for 5 minutes. The graphene-coated Ni foil is obtained.

But how thin must graphite flakes be to behave as graphene? A common idea supported by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is that flakes with more than ten graphene layers consist essentially of graphite. Thermodynamics say that each atomic layer in a flake with ten or fewer layers at room temperature behaves as a single graphene crystal. In addition, the stiffness of the graphite flakes increases with the layer thickness, which means that thin graphene flakes are orders of magnitude more elastic than thicker graphite flakes.

Unfortunately, to actually use graphene in bioelectric reactors, you still have to make it yourself. The ingredients can be found in our DIY Shop.