December 14, 2020

Stronger Cobalt for Fuel Cells

PNNL leads effort to improve reaction activity, increase durability of cobalt as a fuel cell catalyst

Photo of a researcher dressed in safety equipment and gloves handling machinery

PNNL led an effort to design a cobalt-based catalyst that can be used to power hydrogen fuel cells for multiple applications, such as transportation and stationary and backup power.

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

A multi-institutional research team led by materials scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has designed a highly active and durable catalyst that doesn’t rely on costly platinum to spur the necessary chemical reaction.

The new catalyst contains cobalt interspersed with nitrogen and carbon. When compared to a similarly structured catalyst made from iron—another promising, well-studied platinum substitute, the team found that the cobalt catalyst achieved a similar reaction but with four times the durability.

The team’s research, which shows promise for fuel cells in transportation, was published in the November 30, 2020 issue of Nature Catalysis.

Seeking a replacement for costly platinum

Proton exchange membrane—or PEM—fuel cells are typically envisioned to be paired with hydrogen for multiple applications across different sectors, including transportation, stationary and backup power, metals manufacturing, and more. These highly efficient, clean energy conversion devices require very active catalysts for the chemical reaction—the oxygen reduction reaction, or the “lifeblood” that makes a fuel cell efficiently function.

Platinum group metals serve as the most productive catalyst material for PEM fuel cells, but they account for about half of the fuel cell cost.

PNNL expertise and capabilities were instrumental in improving the activity and the durability of a cobalt-based catalyst. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

So, scientists are studying transition metals such as iron as a promising alternative to platinum, but they have found that they quickly degrade in the acidic PEM fuel cell environment.

Enter cobalt, a transition metal that is—relative to platinum—inexpensive and abundant. Previous studies had shown that cobalt is far less active than iron-based catalysts.

“We knew that the configuration of cobalt with nitrogen and carbon was key to how effectively the catalyst reacts and that the active site density was critically important for performance,” said PNNL materials scientist Yuyan Shao, who led the study. “Our goal was to really improve the reaction activity of cobalt-based catalysts.”

Fencing in the atoms

The team immobilized cobalt-based molecules in the micropores of zeolitic imidazolate frameworks, which served as protective fences to decrease the cobalt atoms’ mobility and prevent them from clustering together. They then used high-temperature pyrolysis to convert the atoms to catalytically active sites within the framework.

Within this structure, they discovered that the density of the active sites significantly increased, in turn increasing the reaction activity. This, in fact, achieved the highest activity in fuel cells reported for non-iron, platinum group metal-free catalysts to date.

The team also found the cobalt-based catalyst to be much more durable than the iron-based catalyst synthesized using the same approach. They discovered, for the first time, significant differences in demetallation, where metal ions are leached out of the catalyst and that catalyst then loses activity. They also found that oxygen radicals from hydrogen peroxide, a byproduct of oxygen reduction in fuel cells, attack the catalysts and cause performance loss.

“We knew that the configuration of cobalt with nitrogen and carbon was key to how effectively the catalyst reacts and that the active site density was critically important for performance.” - Yuyan Shao

High activity, greater durability

“In the end, we were able to not only improve the activity of the cobalt-based catalyst, but we significantly improved the durability,” said Shao. “Our further investigation led us to discover the mechanisms that typically degrade these types of catalysts.”

Along with PNNL, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis; Argonne National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; the University of Pittsburgh; and Northern Illinois University collaborated on the research.

The study is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE's) Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office through the Electrocatalysis Consortium, or ElectroCat. The scientific team used capabilities at three DOE Office of Science user facilities: The Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL, the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, and the Center for Nanophase Materials at Oak Ridge National Laboratory—along with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research Computing and the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, supported by the National Science Foundation.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.