Achievements, challenges and perspectives on cathode catalysts in proton exchange membrane fuel cells for transportation

Proton exchange membrane fuel cells can use hydrogen and air to power clean electric vehicles. However, technical barriers including high cost, limited lifetime and insufficient power density limit their broad applications. Advanced cathode catalysts for the kinetically-sluggish oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) in acidic media are essential for overcoming these barriers. Here, we highlight breakthroughs, challenges and future directions for both platinum group metal (PGM) and PGM-free ORR cathode catalysts. Among PGM catalysts, highly-ordered PtM intermetallic nanostructures exhibit enhanced activity and stability relative to PtM random alloys. Carbon supports, with optimal balance between graphitization degree and porosity, play an important role in enhancing overall performance. Among PGM-free catalysts, transition metal and nitrogen co-doped carbons (M-N-C) perform best. However, degradation at practical voltages (>0.6 V) still prevents their practical application. For all catalysts, translating intrinsic activity and stability into device performance requires electrodes with robust three-phase interfaces for effective charge and mass transfer.

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Fig. 1: Development of cathode catalysts for PEMFCs.
Fig. 2: Highly ordered PtM intermetallic catalysts.
Fig. 3: L10-CoPt/Pt NPs and their ORR catalytic performance in both rotating disk electrode (RDE) and MEA experiments.
Fig. 4: Current development of PGM catalysts.
Fig. 5: Typical M-N-C catalyst synthesis using carbon supports (for example, Ketjenblack) and self-templating material (for example, ZIF-8)
Fig. 6: Current development of PGM-free catalysts.
Fig. 7: Directions to improve catalytic activity of M-N-C catalysts.
Fig. 8: Four interrelated scientific objectives for advancing M-N-C based PGM-free catalysts.


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We acknowledge the financial support from US Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Fuel Cell Technology Office (DE-EE0008075, DE-EE0008076, and DE-EE0008417) along with National Science Foundation (CBET-1604392, 1804326).

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Correspondence to Gang Wu.

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Wang, X.X., Swihart, M.T. & Wu, G. Achievements, challenges and perspectives on cathode catalysts in proton exchange membrane fuel cells for transportation. Nat Catal 2, 578–589 (2019).

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