UD engineers, international researchers find new catalyst to improve fuel cell materials

University of Delaware College of Engineering postdoctoral researcher Teng Wang, Professor Yushan Yan and their Switzerland-based collaborators have published findings in Nature Materials on a new catalyst that could eliminate the need for precious metals in fuel cells.

The research effort led by Wang and Yan, with UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Xile Hu and Weiyan Ni of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), builds on work to move from proton exchange membrane fuel cells to hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells — research that has been underway in Yan’s lab for nearly 20 years.

The proton exchange membrane fuel cells are considered a promising clean-energy technology, but the need for high-cost catalysts, such as platinum, has limited their potential as an alternative energy source. Moving the membrane environments from acidic to alkaline allows the elimination of such precious metals on the catalyst-side of the process.

For hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells, previous efforts including those at UD, have found non-precious metal catalysts for the oxygen side of the process, but have been unsuccessful at finding high-performance catalysts for the hydrogen reaction side of the process.

The nickel-based catalyst the researchers have made is more than six times as efficient as the next-best, non-platinum alternative. This new technology gets chemical engineers much closer to the U.S. Department of Energy’s peak power density target that this type of fuel cell development needs to reach by 2030.

“This is a major milestone for the completely platinum- and precious-metal-free fuel cell,” Yan said. “And a significant advancement of our longstanding vision to move fuel cells from an acidic operating environment to an alkaline one.”

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson | May 04, 2022