In situ spectroscopy as a probe of electrocatalyst performance

Hydrogen fuel cells generally require expensive and scarce platinum catalysts in order to function. Researchers have created highly reactive platinum-nickel nanowires with the potential to reduce the amount of platinum required in fuel cells. Research at PIPOXS examines the atomic-level mechanisms of this catalyst, forming a foundation for the development and commercialization of more efficient fuel cell technology.

What is the new discovery?

The oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is an important and often limiting component of hydrogen fuel cell operation.  To facilitate this reaction, platinum-based catalysts are often used to increase its rate, though the expense and limited availability of Pt present challenges to its widespread use.  In this work, researchers selectively replaced a portion of the nickel atoms of nickel nanowires with platinum to create platinum-nickel nanowires (PtNi-NWs) as high surface area catalysts that reduced the total amount of platinum required.  These PtNi-NWs were found to be highly active, and so operando x-ray absorption spectroscopy and extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) experiments were conducted at the PIPOXS beamline to assess the electronic and geometric changes occurring in these catalysts during their use.   These data enabled the researchers to determine that the Pt formed an alloy with the Ni in the NW and that its interaction with oxygen remained constant regardless of the external potential applied.  

Read more on the CHESS website

Image: Schematic showing the electrochemical cell used for the operando measurements, and how the EXAFS data can be used to deduce the chemistry happening during this reaction.

A 1-Atom-Deep Look at a Water-Splitting Catalyst

X-ray experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) revealed an unexpected transformation in a single atomic layer of a material that contributed to a doubling in the speed of a chemical reaction – the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. This process is a first step in producing hydrogen fuel for applications such as electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The research team, led by scientists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, performed a unique X-ray technique and related analyses, pioneered at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS), to home in on the changes at the surface layer of the material. The ALS produces X-rays and other forms of intense light to carry out simultaneous experiments at dozens of beamlines.

Read more on the LBL website

Image: This illustration shows two possible types of surface layers for a catalyst that performs the water-splitting reaction, the first step in making hydrogen fuel: The gray surface is lanthanum oxide and the colorful surface is nickel oxide. A rearrangement of nickel oxide’s atoms while carrying out the reaction made it twice as efficient. Researchers hope to harness this phenomenon to make better catalysts. Lanthanum atoms are depicted in green, nickel atoms in blue, and oxygen atoms in red.

Credit: CUBE3D