Western led research strips down platinum to nanosized fuel cell catalysts

Dividing highly expensive platinum isotopes into nanosized particles (or even single atoms) has triggered the discovery of less expensive way to create fuel cells for use in everything from automobiles to computers.

The research findings, led by Western University Xueliang (Andy) Sun and Tsun-Kong (T.K.) Sham were published recently by Scientific Reports, Nature’s online, open access, multidisciplinary publication.

Collaborating with researchers at McMaster University, Canadian Light Source and Ballard Power Systems Inc., Sun and Sham have developed a method of utilizing atomic layer deposition (ALD), a surface science technique used for depositing chemical compounds, to create single atom catalysts. This is a major boon for the three-headed battle against global energy demands, depletion of fossil fuel reserves, and environmental pollution problems.

“Platinum, which is very expensive, is often used as a catalyst but only the surface atoms are doing the work,” says Sun, Western’s Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials for Energy Conversion and Storage. “The rest of the atoms, below the surface, have no function as a catalyst so you are basically paying for 100 per cent of the platinum but only using 10 to 20 per cent.”

“By dispersing the platinum, each and every one of the atoms increases efficiency many times fold,” says Sham, Western’s Canada Research in Materials & Synchrotron Radiation. “Dispersing platinum also provides much more bang for our buck, which makes government, industry and consumers very happy.”

Sham says synchrotron radiation and an ultra-high resolution transmission electron microscope play a big role in tracking the chemical properties of platinum and its performance, explaining that the technique basically divides platinum into “small as possible” parts so the surface area can be maximized.

The research was supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Ballard Power System Inc., Canada Research Chair (CRC) Program, Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Ontario Research Fund (ORF), Ontario Early Researcher Award (ERA) and Western.