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Chemical Engineer Awarded Grant to Improve Fuel Cell Technology

By Kat J. McAlpine

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded Dr. William Mustain a three-year, $480,000 grant to fund research on the development of non-carbon electrocatalyst supports. Dr. Mustain, an electrochemical engineer in the Department of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering, will work to improve fuel cell technology by increasing the activity and stability of platinum catalysts, which are a central component of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Fuel cell technology is an important field of research and development as scientists strive to advance clean energy applications.

The study will address one of the Grand Challenges presented by the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, The Basic Architecture of Matter: Directed Assemblies, Structure and Properties. “The research will ultimately facilitate transformative changes in the composition, structure and design considerations of supported electrochemical catalysts,” stated Dr. Mustain. He added that the study will also “provide new pathways for future research on the systematic design of high performance catalyst materials with high activity and electrochemical stability.” The knowledge gained will serve as a future guideline for the design of next-generation materials for energy conversion.

Dr. Mustain aims to increase the activity and stability of platinum electrocatalysts by manipulating both the support microstructure and surface chemistry. Currently the most common material used in support microstructure is carbon, which is selected for its widespread availability and affordability. However, carbon has a weak interaction with platinum which leads to the migration and agglomeration of platinum clusters, ultimately decreasing the overall efficiency of the catalyst. In an effort to increase fuel cell performance, Dr. Mustain’s research calls for the use of support materials which have stronger bonds with platinum. The platinum clusters will be anchored to the support by electron transfer bonds, increasing both dispersion and stability. Furthermore, overall catalyst activity will be increased due to the rearranged electron density of the cluster.

Dr. Mustain’s research team will be investigating the use of three alternative support materials: tungsten carbide, indium tin oxide and titanium aluminum nitride. As a control, the researchers will also subject traditional carbon supports to the same barrage of testing and analysis. “Electrocatalytically active nano-sized platinum clusters will be deposited on each catalyst support and the resulting electrocatalyst will be exposed to a series of electrochemical and materials analysis techniques,” he explained. According to Dr. Mustain, some of the analysis techniques will include scanning tunneling microscopy, X-ray diffraction, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and cyclic voltammetry.

The design plan will serve as a model for future analytical design criteria on electrocatalyst support manipulation. Advanced fuel cell technologies, which have a low- or zero-carbon footprint, are recognized as a promising avenue for reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. The research conducted by Dr. Mustain’s team could someday lead to the use of fuel cell technology as a common power source for back-up generators, solar technology, automobiles, as well as residential and commercial heating systems.

Dr. Mustain received his Ph.D. from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006 for his work on cobalt-palladium electrocatalysts for oxygen reduction in acid media. He then served as a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology from 2006-08. His research team for this project will include graduate students Ying Liu (B.S., Tianjin University in China) and Nepal native Sujan Shrestha (B.S. Fairleigh Dickinson University). In addition to the doctoral students, undergraduate research assistants include Tulsi Patel, Jonathan Goldman and Sasha Asheghi. To learn more about Dr. Mustain’s electrochemistry group at UConn, click here.