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Metal nano-particles drive fuel cell innovation

Professor Chad Mirkin: 'The fact that we can reclaim and reactivate these catalysts made of expensive materials is extremely valuable.’

Northwestern University has discovered a way to create catalysts from metal nano-particles that could lead to better fuel cells. Another breakthrough is that the Illinois-based research crew succeeded in recycle spent catalysts into active catalysts.

The methodology takes basic metal precursors and uses heat and stabilising trace elements to ‘rapidly transforms’ their shape into structures that are ‘highly active’ catalytically. Researchers say test results show this approach works with five mono-metallic nano-particles and a library of bi-metallic nano-particles, spanning seven different metals – including platinum, cobalt and nickel.

‘Many of these precious metals are responsible for catalysing some of the most important chemical transformations used in the chemical, oil and fuel cell industries,’ comments professor Chad  Mirkin , who led the research. He adds: ‘Catalysts slowly degrade over time and change, so the fact that we can reclaim and reactivate these catalysts made of expensive materials is extremely valuable.’

The new catalysts are called high-index facet nano-particle catalysts, an ‘optimal form’ for accelerating chemical reactions. Mirkin’s team found their platinum catalysts were 20 times faster than the commercial low-index form for the formic acid electrooxidation reaction, which is based on platinum content.

‘Platinum in the high-index facet form is different and better than it is in other nano-particle forms,’ explains professor Chris Wolverton, a co-author of the research project. He points out that the new catalysts can be mass produced, without the use of ligands, which are known to compromise catalytic activity. Besides, Wolverton notes that the innovative is fast as well as scalable.

In fact, Mirkin believes that the technology may not be far from commercialisation. ‘This type of technology is ready to be scaled up and utilised widely in the catalysis community,’ he observes.

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