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Quantum Mechanics Studies of Fuel Cell Catalysts and Proton Conducting Ceramics with Validation by Experiment


Tsai, Ho-Cheng (2015) Quantum Mechanics Studies of Fuel Cell Catalysts and Proton Conducting Ceramics with Validation by Experiment. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9P55KFW.


We carried out quantum mechanics (QM) studies aimed at improving the performance of hydrogen fuel cells. This led to predictions of improved materials, some of which were subsequently validated with experiments by our collaborators.

In part I, the challenge was to find a replacement for the Pt cathode that would lead to improved performance for the Oxygen Reduction Reaction (ORR) while remaining stable under operational conditions and decreasing cost. Our design strategy was to find an alloy with composition Pt3M that would lead to surface segregation such that the top layer would be pure Pt, with the second and subsequent layers richer in M. Under operating conditions we expect the surface to have significant O and/or OH chemisorbed on the surface, and hence we searched for M that would remain segregated under these conditions. Using QM we examined surface segregation for 28 Pt3M alloys, where M is a transition metal. We found that only Pt3Os and Pt3Ir showed significant surface segregation when O and OH are chemisorbed on the catalyst surfaces. This result indicates that Pt3Os and Pt3Ir favor formation of a Pt-skin surface layer structure that would resist the acidic electrolyte corrosion during fuel cell operation environments. We chose to focus on Os because the phase diagram for Pt-Ir indicated that Pt-Ir could not form a homogeneous alloy at lower temperature. To determine the performance for ORR, we used QM to examine all intermediates, reaction pathways, and reaction barriers involved in the processes for which protons from the anode reactions react with O2 to form H2O. These QM calculations used our Poisson-Boltzmann implicit solvation model include the effects of the solvent (water with dielectric constant 78 with pH 7 at 298K). We found that the rate determination step (RDS) was the Oad hydration reaction (Oad + H2Oad -> OHad + OHad) in both cases, but that the barrier for pure Pt of 0.50 eV is reduced to 0.48 eV for Pt3Os, which at 80 degrees C would increase the rate by 218%. We collaborated with the Pu-Wei Wu’s group to carry out experiments, where we found that the dealloying process-treated Pt2Os catalyst showed two-fold higher activity at 25 degrees C than pure Pt and that the alloy had 272% improved stability, validating our theoretical predictions.

We also carried out similar QM studies followed by experimental validation for the Os/Pt core-shell catalyst fabricated by the underpotential deposition (UPD) method. The QM results indicated that the RDS for ORR is a compromise between the OOH formation step (0.37 eV for Pt, 0.23 eV for Pt2ML/Os core-shell) and H2O formation steps (0.32 eV for Pt, 0.22 eV for Pt2ML/Os core-shell). We found that Pt2ML/Os has the highest activity (compared to pure Pt and to the Pt3Os alloy) because the 0.37 eV barrier decreases to 0.23 eV. To understand what aspects of the core shell structure lead to this improved performance, we considered the effect on ORR of compressing the alloy slab to the dimensions of pure Pt. However this had little effect, with the same RDS barrier 0.37 eV. This shows that the ligand effect (the electronic structure modification resulting from the Os substrate) plays a more important role than the strain effect, and is responsible for the improved activity of the core- shell catalyst. Experimental materials characterization proves the core-shell feature of our catalyst. The electrochemical experiment for Pt2ML/Os/C showed 3.5 to 5 times better ORR activity at 0.9V (vs. NHE) in 0.1M HClO4 solution at 25 degrees C as compared to those of commercially available Pt/C. The excellent correlation between experimental half potential and the OH binding energies and RDS barriers validate the feasibility of predicting catalyst activity using QM calculation and a simple Langmuir–Hinshelwood model.

In part II, we used QM calculations to study methane stream reforming on a Ni-alloy catalyst surfaces for solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) application. SOFC has wide fuel adaptability but the coking and sulfur poisoning will reduce its stability. Experimental results suggested that the Ni4Fe alloy improves both its activity and stability compared to pure Ni. To understand the atomistic origin of this, we carried out QM calculations on surface segregation and found that the most stable configuration for Ni4Fe has a Fe atom distribution of (0%, 50%, 25%, 25%, 0%) starting at the bottom layer. We calculated that the binding of C atoms on the Ni4Fe surface is 142.9 Kcal/mol, which is about 10 Kcal/mol weaker compared to the pure Ni surface. This weaker C binding energy is expected to make coke formation less favorable, explaining why Ni4Fe has better coking resistance. This result confirms the experimental observation. The reaction energy barriers for CHx decomposition and C binding on various alloy surface, Ni4X (X=Fe, Co, Mn, and Mo), showed Ni4Fe, Ni4Co, and Fe4Mn all have better coking resistance than pure Ni, but that only Ni4Fe and Fe4Mn have (slightly) improved activity compared to pure Ni.

In part III, we used QM to examine the proton transport in doped perovskite-ceramics. Here we used a 2x2x2 supercell of perovskite with composition Ba8X7M1(OH)1O23 where X=Ce or Zr and M=Y, Gd, or Dy. Thus in each case a 4+ X is replace by a 3+ M plus a proton on one O. Here we predicted the barriers for proton diffusion allowing both includes intra-octahedron and inter-octahedra proton transfer. Without any restriction, we only observed the inter-octahedra proton transfer with similar energy barrier as previous computational work but 0.2 eV higher than experimental result for Y doped zirconate. For one restriction in our calculations is that the Odonor-Oacceptor atoms were kept at fixed distances, we found that the barrier difference between cerates/zirconates with various dopants are only 0.02~0.03 eV. To fully address performance one would need to examine proton transfer at grain boundaries, which will require larger scale ReaxFF reactive dynamics for systems with millions of atoms. The QM calculations used here will be used to train the ReaxFF force field.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Quantum Mechanics, Pt3Os Catalyst, DFT, Segregation, ORR, PtOs, Core-Shell Catalysts, UPD, Electrocatalysis, Dealloying Process, SOFC, Stream Reforming, Ni4Fe Catalyst, Coking, Proton Conducting Ceramics, Perovskite
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Materials Science
Minor Option:Physics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Goddard, William A., III
Thesis Committee:
  • Goddard, William A., III (chair)
  • Gray, Harry B.
  • Johnson, William Lewis
  • Haile, Sossina M.
Defense Date:20 April 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:hctsai1103 (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06012015-203513094
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8962
Deposited By: Ho Cheng Tsai
Deposited On:09 Jun 2015 18:23
Last Modified:14 Apr 2016 22:11

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