A new fabrication technique that produces platinum hollow nanocages with ultra-thin walls could dramatically reduce the amount of the costly metal needed to provide catalytic activity in such applications as fuel cells.

The technique uses a solution-based method for producing atomic-scale layers of platinum to create hollow, porous structures that can generate catalytic activity both inside and outside the nanocages. The layers are grown on palladium nanocrystal templates, and then the palladium is etched away to leave behind nanocages approximately 20 nanometers in diameter, with between three and six atom-thin layers of platinum.

Use of these nanocage structures in fuel cell electrodes could increase the utilization efficiency of the platinum by a factor of as much as seven, potentially changing the economic viability of the fuel cells.

Platinum is in high demand as a catalyst for a wide range of industrial and consumer applications. The high cost of platinum needed for the catalysts deposited on electrodes has limited the ability to use low-temperature fuel cells in automobiles and home applications.

In catalytic applications, only the surface layers of platinum contribute to the chemical reaction, leading researchers to develop new structures designed to maximize the amount of platinum exposed to reactants. The hollowing out process reduces the amount of the precious metal not contributing to the reaction, and allows the use of larger nanocrystals that are less susceptible to sintering, an aggregation phenomenon which reduces catalyst surface area.

Earlier work produced shells with wall thicknesses of approximately five nanometers. The new process can produce shell walls less than one nanometer thick. With both the inner layer and outer layer of the porous nanocages contributing to the catalytic activity, the new structures can use up to two-thirds of the platinum atoms in an ultra-thin three-layer shell. Some palladium remains mixed with the platinum in the structures.

The nanocages can be made in either cubic or octahedral shapes, depending on the palladium nanocrystals used as templates. The shape controls the surface structure, thus engineering the catalytic activity.

The goal of this research was to reduce the cost of the cathodes in fuel cells designed to power automobiles and homes. The fuel cell’s oxygen-reduction reaction takes place at the cathode, and that requires a substantial amount of platinum. By reducing the amount of platinum by up to a factor of seven, the hollow shells could make automotive and home fuel cells more economically feasible.

The researchers measured the durability of the platinum nanocages for oxygen-reduction reaction, and found the catalytic activity dropped by a little more than one-third after 10,000 operating cycles. Earlier efforts to maximize surface area relied on making very small platinum nanoparticles just two or three nanometers in diameter. Particles of that size tended to clump together in a process known as sintering, reducing the surface area.

Other applications, such as catalytic converters in automobiles, also use substantial amounts of platinum. The new hollow shells are unlikely to be used in automobile catalytic converters because they operate at a temperature beyond what the structures can tolerate. However, the platinum nanocages could find use in other industrial processes such as hydrogenation.

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