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Humidity-resistant composite membranes for gas separation

Hydrogen (H2) is a lightweight alternative fuel with a high energy density. However, its environmental impact and life cycle efficiency are determined by how it is produced. Today, the main processes of hydrogen production is either by coal gasification or steam reforming of natural gas where in the last step the produced carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced. Usually, this CO2 is released to the environment. The hydrogen produced by these processes lead is called black/brown or grey hydrogen. To improve its carbon footprint, CO2 capture is necessary. This hydrogen is then call blue hydrogen. However, to obtain zero-emission green hydrogen, electrolysis of water using renewable energy is necessary. During the electrolysis process, hydrogen and oxygen are produced on two electrodes (download our more about hydrogen production and utilization as fuel can be found in our latest DIY FC manual).

Climate-related economic pressure for more efficient gas separation processes

The produced hydrogen is not pure in any of the mentioned instances. For example, using steam methane reforming reaction there are many byproduct gases like carbon monoxide, CO2, water, nitrogen and methane gas.

Typically, the CO2 of hydrogen gas is up to 50% contributing to the greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels. Currently, around 80% of CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels. It has been predicted that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase up to 570 ppm in 2,100 which increases the global temperature of about 1.9°C.

The traditional processes of gas separation such as cryogenic distillation and pressure swing adsorption have certain disadvantages, for example high energy consumption. Therefore, developing high-quality and low-cost technologies for gas separation is an important intermediate step to produce cheap hydrogen while reducing CO2 emissions.

Application of 2D material towards gas separation

Finding low cost alternatives like membrane-based separation methods for hydrogen-CO2 separation is a potentially lucrative research and it is therefor not surprising that numerous publications have investigated the matter. The various membrane materials for gas separation range from polymeric membranes, nano-porous materials, metal–organic frameworks and zeolite membranes. The goal is to reach a good balance between selectivity and permeance of gas separation. Both are key parameters for hydrogen purification and CO2 capture processes.

A study published the journal Nature Energy by researchers of the National Institutes of Japan, offered a material platform as advanced solution for the separation of hydrogen  from humid gas mixtures, such as those generated by fossil fuel sources or water electrolysis. The authors showed that the incorporation of positively charged nanodiamonds into graphene oxide (GO/ND+) results in humidity repelling and high performance membranes. The performance of the GO/ND+ laminates excels particularly in hydrogen separation compared with traditional membrane materials.

Strategy and performance of new membrane materials

Graphene oxide laminates are considered as step-change materials for hydrogen-CO2 separation as ultra permeable (triple-digit permeance) and ultra-selective membranes. Still, graphene oxide films lose their attractive separation properties and stability in humid conditions.

After lamination, graphene oxide sheets have an overall negative charge and can be disintegrated due to the electrostatic repulsion if exposed to water. The strategy to overcome this obstacle was based on the charge compensation principle. That is, the authors incorporated positively and negatively charged fillers as stabilizing agents, and tested different loadings as well as graphene oxide flake sizes. So-prepared membranes were tested for stability in dry and humid conditions while separating either hydrogen from CO2 or oxygen.

The GO/ND+ composite membranes retained up to 90% of their hydrogen selectivity against CO2 exposure to several cycles and under aggressive humidity test. A GO30ND+ membrane with 30% positively charged nano-diamond particles exhibited exceptional hydrogen permeance with more than 3,700  gas permeatin units (GPU) and high hydrogen-CO2 selectivity. Interestingly, incorporation of negatively charged nano-diamond particles had no stabilizing effect. The researcher attributed this mostly to the generation of macro scale voids in ND systems resulting in the loss of selectivity. This phenomenon is commonly observed in polymer-based nano-composite membranes with poor interfacial interactions

The gas separation properties of the composite membranes were also investigated using an equimolar hydrogen-CO2 feed mixture. The hydrogen permeance decreased by 6% and hydrogen-CO2 selectivity of the GO30ND+ membrane by 13%.

The stability test of the membranes exposure to wet and dry feeds of the equimolar hydrogen-CO2 mixture  and hydrogen-oxygen mixture showed that GO/ND+ membranes were reversible membrane properties. On the other hand, graphene oxide-only membranes could not survive a single complete cycle exposure, becoming fully permeable to both gases. The researchers explained that the advantages of GO/ND+ membranes over graphene oxide-only membranes were caused by changes of the pore architecture such as dimensions and tortuosity, which could be improved by optimizing the nano-diamond loading. This results in better permeability without any notable loss of selectivity.

X-ray diffraction analysis showed that the incorporation of nanodiamonds has two major effects on the membrane microstructure: increasing the overall pore volume and reducing the average lateral size. Both make the membrane structure more accessible for molecular transport.

Nevertheless, this relatively new class of humid-resistant membranes still needs more optimization to compete with current industrial separation processes.

Image: Pixabay / seagul

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Improving direct ethanol fuel cells by fluorine doping

Direct ethanol fuel cells (DEFCs) are fuel cells that run on ethanol to directly produce electrical power. Despite having much to offer they have not been forayed into. Ethanol can be made from biomass by yeasts and its oxidation products – CO2 and H2O – are hence environmentally friendly. The application of DEFCs could be a lucrative solution for vehicles due to the energy efficiency if mass-produced. Our current infrastructure for combustion fuels is ready for ethanol. DEFC usage would therefore be a sustainable and environment-friendly alternative to current internal combustion engines. Moreover, ethanol is liquid, which facilitates distribution, storage and use.

According to studies sponsored by  International Energy Agency (IEA), DEFCs deliver high power densities, culminating between 50 to 185 mW / cm2. Currently, DEFCs face multiple challenges such as slow redox kinetics, limited performance, and the high cost of electrocatalysts needed for DEFCs.

In a DEFC, the two key reactions are:

  1. Ethanol Oxidation Reaction (EOR)
  2. Oxygen Reduction Reaction (ORR)

Their sluggish rates have prevented widespread adoption of this technology. State-of-the-art DEFCs require expensive platinum-based materials to catalyze these reactions. Yet, they do not completely oxidize ethanol to CO2 to complete the EOR reaction, limiting the energy efficiency. One way to fix this issue is to separate and re-inject the unreacted ethanol. Since this adds more engineering to the fuel cell, a better solution is to find more efficient catalysts. Hence, to realize the true potential of DEFCs, is to find cheaper and more active catalysts for the two reactions in DEFCs.

The researchers at the University of Central Florida and their colleagues experimented on Pd–N–C catalyst and attempted to improve catalyst performance by introducing fluorine atoms. The team used alkaline membranes and platinum-free catalysts. Not only were these more cost-effective but also produced a high power output.

Previous research on electrocatalytic systems revealed that the local coordination environment (LCE) of the electrode surface is pivotal in tuning the activity of electrocatalysts made of carbon-supported metal nanoparticles. The study showed that introducing fluorine atoms in Pd–N–C catalysts regulated the LCE around the Pd, improving both activity and durability for the two key reactions. This improved the catalytic performance, and ultimately the fuel cell’s performance.

The new study demonstrated that fluorine doping rearranged the electron structure of the fuel cell catalyst. This substantially improved power density and ultimately the performance of the DEFC when compared with present-day benchmark catalysts. The experimental results on long-term stability demonstrated promising advancements towards practical applications of such catalysts in DEFCs.


Upon experimental analysis, it was found that the fluorine atoms in the catalyst weakened carbon-nitrogen bond and pushed the N atoms towards palladium. This electron translocation efficiently regulated the LCE of palladium by forming palladium-nitrogen active sites for catalytic reactions.

The N-rich palladium surface promoted carbon-carbon bond cleavage and enabled complete ethanol oxidation. During the ORR, the N-rich palladium surface surface not only weakened CO2 adsorption but also created more accessible catalytic sites for rapid O2 adsorption.

According to the authors, a commonly occurring problem in DEFCs – the inability to complete the two key reactions – has been resolved. Their catalyst enhanced the overall performance of the fuel cell. The addition of fluorine also enhanced the durability of the catalyst by reducing the corrosion of carbon materials as well as inhibiting palladium migration and aggregation.

When the novel catalyst was tested in a DEFC, an output maximum power density of 0.57 W/cm2 was obtained. The fuel cell was stable for more than 5,900 hours. The proposed strategy, when experimented with using other carbon-supported metal catalysts, also gave improved results in activity and stability.


The main shortcoming of DEFCs running in the alkaline condition is their durability. Currently, it is not sufficient for practical applications. Moreover, the anion-exchange membranes in use have two issues:

  • Structural stability of membrane is insufficient for long-term use
  • Carbonation occurs in presence of CO2 due to its reaction with hydroxide ions, ultimately degrading the catalyst.

Albeit stable for remarkable 5,900 hours, the membrane was replaced after 1,200 hours in the presented study. Since replacing membranes require complete disassembly of the cell, this is not a long-term practical solution.

Hence, there must be further research on increasing ionic conductivity and stability of anionic membranes for practical use of DEFC in alkaline conditions. Ideally, the hydroxide solution used to increase ionic conductivity is avoided to preserve energy density and reduce the complexity of the device. Solid oxide fuel cells offer a solution for these problems since the fuel is oxidized in gaseous form but their ceramic membrane are too fragile for mobile applications.

The current experiment makes significant strides in improving power density in DEFCs much more than any state-of-the-art DEFCs. The way ahead is further research to overcome these smaller obstacles in the long-term use of anionic membranes.

Experimental analysis

Materials used

Commercial Pd/C (10%, 8 nm Pd particles on activated carbon), as well as Pt/C (20%, 3 nm Pt particles on carbon black), were used as baseline catalysts. Also, Nafion™ solution (5%), carbon paper (TGP-H-060), and anion-exchange membranes (Fumasep FAS-PET-75)

Synthesis of heteroatom X-doped carbon (X–C, X=N, P, S, B, F)

Carbon black with abundant oxygen functional groups and melamine (C3H6N6) were mixed and ground, and finally pyrolyzed. After cooling to room temperature, N–C was obtained by washing with ethanol and water. The same method was used to synthesize P–C, S–C, B–C, and F–C from sodium hypophosphite anhydrous, sulfur powder, boric acid, and polyvinylidene difluoride.

Synthesis of hetero-atom fluorine-doped carbon catalysts

N–C and polyvinylidene difluoride were mixed and ground before adding them into a solution of acetone and water. After ultra sound treatment, the mixture was refluxed in an oil bath until fully dried. The mixture was then pyrolyzed and after cooling to room temperature, the samples were washed with ethanol and ultrapure water, followed by a vacuum to obtain the fluorinated catalyst support. The same method was used for the other precursors.

A microwave reduction method was used to synthesize palladium catalyst on the catalyst support. The content of palladium in all samples was kept at 1.0%, which was determined and double-confirmed by X-ray spectroscopy and inductively coupled plasma.

Electrochemical characterizations

For the electrical measurements, either a glassy carbon ring-disc electrode or rotating ring-disc electrode were used. The Fumasep membrane was used as an anion-exchange membrane, modified to change it to a hydroxide environment.


Chang et al., 2021, Improving Pd–N–C fuel cell electrocatalysts through fluorination-driven rearrangements of local coordination environment. Nature Energy 6, 1144–1153

Image Source: P_Wei, Pixabay

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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.

Image: iStock

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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)