Reports: ND551142-ND5: From First Principles Studies to Novel Electro-Catalysts for Oxygen Reduction Reaction: Design, Synthesis and Testing

Suljo Linic, University of Michigan

The largest culprit toward efficiency loss in low temperature polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuels cells is the sluggish kinetics of the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) at the cathode.  Overcoming the ORR barrier has historically required the use of platinum electro-catalysts. High cost of platinum has made this technology unfeasible. We proposed to evaluate a number of silver-based electro-catalysts for the ORR. Our preliminary results obtained using quantum chemical studies of the molecular mechanisms of ORR suggest that these materials should offer a performance similar to Pt at a small fraction of the overall cost. In particular, we proposed to focus on two classes of materials: (i) shaped Ag particles (Ag nanocubes and nanowires) terminated by the Ag(100) surface facet. We note that conventional spherical Ag particles (synthesized using conventional impregnation synthesis) are mainly terminated by the (111) facet which exhibits low electro-chemical activity, and (ii) a number of Ag alloys combining 3d metals (mainly Ni and Co) with Ag. The common feature of these materials is that they can electro-activate molecular O2 (in its reaction with H+) with significantly lower activation barriers than conventional spherical Ag particles. Since this elementary step is the main source of over-potential losses on Ag, we anticipated that these nanostructured electro-catalysts should operate with efficiencies approaching those of Pt electro-catalysts. We proposed to synthesize, characterize and evaluate these Ag electro-catalysts. Ultimately, the electro-catalytic ORR performance of the Ag electro-catalysts will be compared to the state-of-the-art Pt materials.


  1. In the initial stage of the project, we performed detailed kinetic modeling that allowed us to propose a mechanism of elementary steps for the ORR on Pt and Ag surfaces. These efforts led us to the molecular mechanism that is completely consistent with the experimentally measured ORR reaction kinetics. We note that other proposed mechanisms cannot account for experimental results. Among other features, the proposed mechanism allowed us to explain a non-ideal kinetic behavior of ORR, manifested in the potential dependent Tafel slope. We note that Tafel equation relates the rate of electrochemical reaction to electrical potential. We showed for the first time that shifts in the Tafel slope can be rigorously explained by potential-induced changes in the number of active sites available on the electrode surface.
  2. The main mechanistic feature of the proposed mechanism is that there are two elementary steps that affect the rate of ORR on Pt. One step, which controls the kinetic rate of the reaction on the active site, is the attachment of proton (H+) to molecular oxygen. The other step which controls the concentration of the active sites under relevant reaction conditions is dissociation of water into adsorbed OH and H+. This step is in equilibrium under high electric potential conditions, and the concentration of OH on the surface is very high, preventing a rapid execution of the reaction. Any electro-catalyst that is improved compared to Pt needs to adsorb with lower adsorption energy and be more facile in promoting the attachment of H+ to O2. We find that similar mechanistic features govern the ORR on different Ag surfaces. This analysis provides us with a molecular handles that will guide us in the design of improved electro-catalyst.
  3. We have also spent the first year to master the synthesis of Ag nanoparticles of various shapes. These will be used in our ORR studies.

This grant has been instrumental in training PhD students in the field of electrochemistry and electrocatalysis. Student working on the project are well equipped to model various electrochemical processes from molecular up to macroscopic level. They are also trained in performing detailed experimentation on electrochemical systems.

Finally, I also want to comment on the fact that large amount of allocated fund has not been spent to date.  The main reason for this is that we had intended to hire a postdoctoral fellow; however, he had to cancel his move to the University of Michigan. We are in the process of hiring a new postdoc. The initial studies discussed above have been performed by a graduate student in my group. This should not affect our ability to execute the project as outlined in our original proposal.