Alloying Pt with transition metals, such as Co and Ni, enhances the catalytic activity for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) at cathodes of polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFCs). The alloying process necessarily involves a high-temperature thermal annealing step that grows the size of catalyst nanoparticles above 4-5 nm. Particles of this size are known to be more stable under cyclic potentials as they are less prone to Pt dissolution and coalescence than finer scale 2-3 nm Pt particles. However, transition metals are unstable at operating fuel cell potentials and can leach out of the catalyst in the cathode and into the ionomer, resulting in loss of ORR activity.
Three formulations of Pt-Co alloy catalysts supported on high surface area carbon were subjected to accelerated stress tests (ASTs) in H2-N2 environment. The AST protocol consisted of repeated square waves with 0.6 V lower potential limit (LPL), 0.95 V upper potential limit (UPL), and 3-s holds at LPL and UPL. Changes in cell performance were monitored by measuring polarization in H2-air, high frequency resistance (HFR), electrochemical surface area (ECSA), impedance in air and helox (79% He, 21% O2), and mass activity. These measurements were made at beginning of life (BOL) and after 1000 (1k), 20,000 (20k) and 30,000 (30k) cycles. The three catalysts had a different initial Co content (34%, 20%, and 15%) and electrode microstructure. At BOL, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis of the high-Co content (H) catalyst electrode, 0.2 mg/cm2 Pt loading, showed a “spongy” porous (hollow) catalyst nanoparticle morphology with ~6.7 nm median Pt-Co particle size after conditioning. The BOL medium-Co content (M) catalyst electrode, 0.1 mg/cm2 Pt loading, showed a crystalline fully alloyed catalyst nanparticle morphology with ~4.4 nm particle size after conditioning. The BOL low-Co content (L) catalyst electrode, 0.1 mg/cm2 Pt loading, also showed catalysts with a fully alloyed crystalline morphology with ~4.5 nm median particle size.
Post-mortem TEM analysis of aged electrode specimens showed different amounts of Co dissolution from the nanoparticles. There is an apparent direct relationship between the initial alloy Co content the amount of Co dissolved after potential cycles. WAXS analysis confirms significant Co loss from the nanoparticles and also indicates that the Pt-Pt d-spacing in Pt-Co alloy approaches the values typical of pure Pt particles. The effect of Co dissolution on the loss in specific activity for ORR is summarized in Fig. 1a. The data suggest that the specific activity depends not only on the initial Co content but also on the catalyst nanoparticle morphology and size. Even with 27-50% Co loss, the specific activity of Pt-Co alloy remains higher than 1000 mA/cm2-Pt, and exceeds the activity (650 mA/cm2-Pt) of pure Pt of similar particle size. The measured specific activities are consistent with a kinetic model and catalyst-specific choice of kinetic parameters.
The modeled ORR kinetic losses depend on specific activity, ECSA, catalyst loading, and kinetic parameters (electrode morphology). As shown in Fig. 1b, the H-catalyst electrode shows the smallest kinetic overpotentials (ηcs) due to high Pt loading, but has the fastest increase in ηcs with ageing because of low Co retention in the electrode. The L-catalyst electrode shows higher ηcs due to lower Pt loading but has a smaller increase in ηcs with ageing because of high Co retention. For this catalyst, increase in is mostly due to loss of ECSA with ageing. The M-catalyst electrode shows similar increase in ηcs with ageing as the L-catalyst electrode, but this increase is due to the combined effects of Co dissolution and ECSA loss.
The modeled increase in mass transfer overpotentials (ηm) with ageing correlates with Pt loading and ECSA loss and depends on the initial electrode morphology. There is no clear evidence of a relationship between Co dissolution (i.e., effect of Co2+ on O2 permeability in ionomer film) and the resulting increase in ηm.
The authors wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office and Fuel Cell Component R&D Team Lead, Dr. Dimitrios Papageorgopoulus, and Technology Development Manager, Dr. Nancy Garland. The authors also wish to acknowledge General Motors, IRD and Umicore for supplying materials used in this study. The submitted manuscript has been created by UChicago Argonne, LLC, Operator of Argonne National Laboratory (“Argonne”). Argonne, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, is operated under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.