Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have created a high-performing nanocatalyst that meets all these demands. The novel core-shell structure—ruthenium coated with platinum—resists damage from carbon monoxide as it drives the energetic reactions central to electric vehicle fuel cells and similar technologies.

Catalysts inside fuel cells pry free the intrinsic energy of hydrogen molecules and convert it into electricity. Platinum performs exceptionally well with pure hydrogen fuel, but the high cost and rarity of the metal impedes its widespread deployment. By coating less expensive metals with thin layers of platinum atoms, however, scientists can retain reactivity while driving down costs and creating core-shell structures with superior performance parameters.

The carbon monoxide impurities in hydrogen formed from natural gas present another challenge to scientists because they deactivate most platinum catalysts. Ruthenium—less expensive than platinum—promotes carbon monoxide tolerance, but is more prone to dissolution during fuel cells' startup/shutdowns, causing gradual performance decay.

"We set out to protect ruthenium cores from dissolution with complete platinum shells just one or two atoms thick," Wang said. "Previous surface science studies revealed remarkable variation of surface properties in this core-shell configuration, suggesting the need and the opportunity to perfect the recipe with precise control."

Doubts existed about whether or not a highly ordered ruthenium core was even possible with a platinum shell—previously synthesized nanoparticles exhibited a weakened crystal structure in the ruthenium.

"Luckily, we found that the loss of ruthenium structure was due to defect-mediated interlayer diffusion, which is avoidable," Wang said. "By eliminating any lattice defects in ruthenium nanoparticles before adding platinum, we preserved the crucial, discrete atomic structure of each element."

The scalable and inexpensive synthesis method uses ethanol—a common and inexpensive solvent—as the reductant to fabricate the nanoparticle core and shell. The sophisticated process requires no other organic agents or metal templates.

"Simply adjusting temperature, water, and acidity of the solutions gave us complete control over the process and yielded remarkably consistent ruthenium nanoparticle size and uniform platinum coating," said Brookhaven Lab chemist Radoslav Adzic, another coauthor on the study. "This simplicity offers high reproducibility and scalability, and it demonstrates the clear commercial potential of our method."

Scientists at Brookhaven Lab's National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) revealed the atomic density, distribution, and uniformity of the metals in the nanocatalysts using a technique called x-ray diffraction, where high-frequency light scatters and bends after interacting with individual atoms. The collaboration also used a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) at Brookhaven's Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) to pinpoint the different sub-nanometer atomic patterns. With this instrument, a focused beam of electrons bombarded the particles, creating a map of both the core and shell structures.

Determining the ideal functional configuration for the core and shell also required the use of the CFN's expertise in computational science. With density functional theory (DFT) calculations, the computer helps identify the most energetically stable platinum-ruthenium structure.

"The DFT analysis connects the dots between performance and configuration, and it corroborates our direct observations from x-ray diffraction and electron microscopy," a researcher said.

This story is reprinted from material from NIST, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.