Posted in Sustainable Science

Non-precious fuel cell catalysts: a greener and cheaper approach to fuel cells!

By: Holly Fruehwald

Holly Fruehwald is from Brampton, Ontario, she moved to Oshawa in 2011 when she began her Bachelors degree in chemistry. She completed her BSc in 2017 and started her MSc in Materials Science the same year at Ontario Tech University. She is now pursuing her PhD in Materials Science at the same University. Research interests are the design of novel catalysts for applications in electrochemical energy systems. Holly also likes reading books about space, space travel, and astronauts in hopes to one day to visit another planet.

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In a world where climate change effects are so drastic there has been an increased pressure on scientists to develop clean energy systems that are efficient. One such technology that is of great interest, mainly to the portable and transportation sector, is fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices that convert chemical energy (H2 and O2) to electricity. The amazing thing about this system is that the only “waste” from this process is water! This technology has limitless potential as a renewable energy source that can theoretically deliver significant quantities of energy for automotive, portable, and stationary applications. As intriguing as this concept is, you don’t see many fuel cell vehicles on the road right now. This is due in part to the lifetime of the devices, the cost of fabrication and the fact that there aren’t many hydrogen fueling stations (one of the “fuels”). But, the fuel cell revolution is coming. It was recently announced that Ballard fuel cells are going to be used in buses in London, England (using fuel cells made in BC!).

You may think that this all seems great, so where does my research come in? While all I mentioned above about fuel cells is great (it’s truly an awesome technology that can help reduce our CO2 emissions) they come with an issue that must be addressed before widespread usage is feasible. Fuel cells rely on costly platinum catalysts made of rare metal to mediate the chemical reactions. Tremendous effort has gone into reducing the amount of platinum required in fuel cells; however, if 7 billion people want to drive fuel cell cars, even with the reduction in the platinum, the amount of platinum still won’t be enough. Not to mention the amount of pollution and energy that is required in the mining of platinum.

A very promising alternative is to use earth-abundant and inexpensive materials in such technologies to make it more affordable and accessible to everyone. This is the major focus of PhD research (in Materials Science at Ontario Tech University). My research is focused on using carbon, nitrogen, and iron to design molecularly precise non-precious metal materials for use in fuel cells. Carbon and nitrogen are naturally abundant, you can access these elements from various kinds of food waste (orange peels, various nut shells, wood)! Iron is also an abundant element, so it can be a great candidate to replace platinum in fuel cells.

While there are many researchers working on improving the performance of non-precious metal materials, what I am doing is unique as I build my materials like building blocks (using a bottom-up approach), starting from the foundation (carbon) and building up (nitrogen and iron). Using this approach I can functionalize the surface of my materials with only the most active sites to do one of the reactions that takes place in the fuel cell. I have found that using this approach I am able to cut energy (and cost) demanding steps in the current material design approach. Most of the research that I conduct embodies green chemistry as this “building block” synthesis procedure aims at increasing the atom economy by designing a surface that only has the active sites present. Such approach reduces molecular level waste from inactive sites on the surface. My method is also the least energy intensive as the preparation of the materials are done at room temperature in ambient pressure. There is no denying that these renewable technologies are becoming mainstream very rapidly, we can only hope the future design and commercialization of these products focus on the use of renewable and energy efficient material designs.

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Established in June 2016, GreenChem UBC (GCU) is a student-founded and student-run organization with the vision of promoting chemistry which uses fewer resources, less energy and has lower environmental impact. Through seminars, workshops, and networking, GreenChemUBC strives to educate scientists and engineers about important green chemistry concepts that are relevant to chemical research and the community at large.

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