Evolving Fuel Cell Catalysts Captured Through Microscopy Technique

First Posted: Nov 20, 2015 03:49 PM EST

Researchers have created a new microscopy technique gives a view of evolving fuel cell catalysts. The atomic-level imaging of catalysts could allow manufacturers to upgrade the performance of emission-free fuel cell technologies at a low cost, according to a study at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"This is the first time individual nanoparticles have been tracked this way to image the structural and compositional changes at the atomic level from the start of an annealing process to the finish," Karren More, a co-author of the study, said in a news release.

Fuel cells use expensive platinum catalysts, which generate reactions that convert chemical energy into electricity. Cobalt is often used to alloy platinum, which reduces the cost, however, the alloyed catalysts could affect the atomic structure and performance.

The ORNL researchers applied scanning transmission electron microscopy, which tracks the atomic reconfigurations in individual platinum-cobalt nanoparticle catalysts. This occurred as the particles were heated inside the microscope. The researchers claimed that the in-situ (original position) measurements from the microscope allowed them to acquire atomic level data, which was thought to be impossible.

The in situ microscopy showed the ORNL researchers "exactly what, when and how specific atomic configurations originate and evolve during the annealing process," which is a gradual heating, holding and cooling process.

"This work paves the way towards designing catalysts through post-synthesis annealing for optimized performance," said Miaofang Chi, lead author of the study.

This new method could allow manufactures and researchers to fine-tune their catalysts' atomic structure, which will meet a higher level of demands and applications, according to the ORNL researchers.

The findings of this study were published in Nature Communications.

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