Atomic-level study provides real-time view of fuel cell catalysts

Atomic-level imaging of catalysts by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory could help manufacturers lower the cost and improve the performance of fuel cells. 

Fuel cells use platinum catalysts that enable the reactions that convert chemical energy into electricity. Alloying platinum with noble metals such as cobalt reduces the overall cost, but these alloyed catalysts can vary in performance.

An ORNL team is said to have used scanning transmission electron microscopy to track atomic reconfigurations in individual platinum-cobalt nanoparticle catalysts as the particles were heated inside the microscope.

Models of platinum-cobalt nanoparticle catalysts illustrate how specific atomic configurations originate and evolve as the particles are heated
Models of platinum-cobalt nanoparticle catalysts illustrate how specific atomic configurations originate and evolve as the particles are heated

The in-situ measurements – acquired in real time in the vacuum of the microscope column – allowed the researchers to collect atomic level data that could not be obtained with conventional microscopy techniques.

The study is published as Surface faceting and elemental diffusion behavior at atomic scale for alloy nanoparticles during in situ annealing in Nature Communications.

“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,” said Karren More, ORNL co-author.

Very small changes in the positions of platinum and cobalt atoms affect the catalyst’s overall activity and selectivity, so annealing – a gradual heating, holding, and cooling process – is often used to modify the alloy’s surface structure. The ORNL in situ microscopy experiments documented exactly what, when and how specific atomic configurations originate and evolve during the annealing process.

“You can anneal something from room temperature to 800 degrees Celsius, but you don’t know at which point you should stop the process to ensure the best catalytic performance,” said lead author Miaofang Chi. “Because you don’t know how the particle evolves, you might be missing the optimum surface configuration.”

The atomic-level detail in the ORNL study is expected to assist researchers and manufacturers who want to fine-tune their catalysts’ atomic structure to meet the demands of a specific application.

“This work paves the way towards designing catalysts through post-synthesis annealing for optimizsed performance,” Chi said in a statement.