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Electrocatalysis in Solid Acid Fuel Cell Electrodes


Evoen, Vanessa (2016) Electrocatalysis in Solid Acid Fuel Cell Electrodes. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9NV9G72.


Fuel cells are appealing alternatives to combustion engines for efficient conversion of chemical energy to electrical energy, with the potential to meet substantial energy demands with a small carbon footprint. Intermediate temperature fuel cells (200-300 °C) combine the kinetic benefits and fuel flexibility of higher operating temperatures along with the flexibility in material choices that lower operating temperatures allow. Solid acid fuel cells (SAFCs) offer the unique benefit amongst intermediate temperature fuel cells of a truly solid electrolyte, specifically, CsH2PO4, which in turn, provides significant system simplifications relative to phosphoric acid or alkaline fuel cells. However, the power output of even the most advanced SAFCs has not yet reached levels typical of conventional polymer electrolyte or solid oxide fuel cells. This is largely due to poor activity of the cathodes. That is, while it has been possible to limit electrolyte voltage losses in SAFCs through fabrication of thin-membrane fuel cells (with electrolyte thicknesses of 25–50 μm), it has not been possible to attain high activity cathodes or to limit Pt loadings to competitive levels. In this thesis, the efficacy of non-precious metal catalysts in the solid acid electrochemical system is evaluated. In addition, an attractive synthesis route (specifically, the electrospray method) to fabricating high surface area electrodes with high catalyst utilization is presented.

Elimination of Pt was pursued by the evaluation of carbon nanostructures as potential oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) catalysts in the solid acid electrochemical system. Multi-walled carbon nanotubes were the most consistently catalytically active in comparison with nano-graphite. It is demonstrated that the a) precursor partial pressure, b) seed catalyst size, c) growth temperature and d) chemical functionalization can be used to control the defect density and atomic composition of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs), all of which play a significant role on the measured ORR activity. Increasing the precursor partial pressure, decreasing the seed catalyst size, and decreasing the growth temperature increases the density of ORR active defects. In addition, the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) electrochemical activity evaluated by symmetric cell AC impedance spectroscopy and fuel cell measurements, were significantly enhanced by chemical functionalization with oxygen containing functional groups. Area normalized impedance responses as low as 7 Ω cm2 were measured on symmetric MWCNT/ CsH2PO4 cells. However, it was discovered that these reactive MWCNTs also catalyze and are slightly consumed by steam reforming. Moreover, the orders of magnitude improvement with functionalization measured in impedance measurements is not replicated in fuel cell power output as a result of a decrease in open circuit voltage relative to standard cells. It is proposed that the loss in voltage results from hydrogen production at the cathode via the steam reforming reaction, although formation of hydrogen peroxide rather than water as the oxygen reduction product cannot be ruled out. This work has a significant contribution to catalysis, it demonstrates how carbon nanostructures can be designed by synthesis routes and chemical functionalization processes, to create active precious-metal-free ORR catalysts. It is also important that we have demonstrated potential ORR catalysts in acidic media. These catalysts have potential applications in phosphoric acid fuel cells and PEMFCs.

In addition to the study of carbon nanostructures, oxides were evaluated as potential ORR catalysts. Specifically, TiOx nanoparticles were studied. Analysis shows that the activity is controlled by the oxidation state of Ti. The active site seems to be on or near slightly reduced Ti sites. In this study we have outlined synthesis routes to tune the oxidation state of Ti and enhance ORR activity in the solid acid fuel cell.

Finally, the fundamentals of the electrospray process are explored to understand how the particle size ultimately resulting from electrospray synthesis depends on both solution properties and process parameters. This analysis presents a systematic way to control the fabrication of high surface area SAFC electrodes with increased throughput, catalyst utilization and consequently power density.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Fuel cells, oxygen reduction reaction, solid acids, catalysis
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Major Option:Chemical Engineering
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Haile, Sossina M.
Thesis Committee:
  • Atwater, Harry Albert
  • Giapis, Konstantinos P. (chair)
  • Rossman, George Robert
  • Haile, Sossina M.
Defense Date:25 May 2016
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NSF Graduate Research FellowshipUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06032016-203656058
Persistent URL:
Evoen, Vanessa0000-0003-2824-1896
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:9843
Deposited By: Vanessa Evoen
Deposited On:08 Mar 2017 21:09
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:13

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