We introduce an experimental approach for structural characterization of catalysts for fuel cells combining synchrotron x-ray spectroscopy and total scattering. The approach allows probing catalysts inside operating fuel cells with atomic-level precision (~ 0.02 Å) and element specificity (~ 2–3 at%) in both time (~ 1 min) and space (~ µm) resolved manner. The approach is demonstrated on exemplary Pd-Sn and Pt-Ni-Cu nanoalloy catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) deposited on the cathode of an operating proton exchange membrane fuel cell. In operando x-ray data show that under operating conditions, the catalyst particles can undergo specific structural changes, ranging from sub-Å atomic fluctuations and sharp nanophase transitions to a gradual strain relaxation and growth, which inflict significant losses in their ORR activity. Though triggered electrochemically, the changes are not driven solely by differences in the reduction potential and surface energy of the metallic species constituting the nanoalloys but also by the formation energy of competing nanophases, mismatch between the size of individual atomic species and their ability to interdiffuse fast in search of energetically favorable configurations. Given their complexity, the changes are difficult to predict and so the resulting ORR losses remain difficult to limit. We show that in operando knowledge of the structural evolution of nanoalloy catalysts helps create strategies for improving their activity and stability. In particular, we show that shaping Pd-Sn nanoalloys rich in Pd as cubes reduces the interdiffusion of atoms at their surface and so makes them better catalysts for ORR in fuel cells in comparison to other Pd-Sn nanoalloys. In addition, we demonstrate that the approach introduced here can provide knowledge of other major factors affecting the performance of fuel cells such as operating temperature and the overall catalyst utilization, in particular the evolution of elemental and mass distribution of catalyst particles over the cells’ cathode. Last but not least, we discuss how in operando x-ray spectroscopy and total x-ray scattering can bridge the knowledge gap between the widely used in situ SAXS, EXAFS and monocrystal surface XRD techniques for structural characterization of nanoalloy catalysts explored for energy related applications.
- Electrocatalysts for fuel cells
- In operando structure-function studies
- Synchrotron x-ray spectroscopy and total scattering