Fuel cells convert fuel like hydrogen or methanol into electrical current to provide power for various applications. There are many types of fuel cells which vary by material fuels and byproducts produced. For example a hydrogen fuel cell uses a catalytic surface to electrochemically oxidize a fuel to liberate a proton (H+) and capture the corresponding electrons for electricity. Platinum is used at the cathode to reduce oxygen. In the case of hydrogen-based fuel cells only water is generated as a byproduct which provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional power sources like internal combustion engines. Platinum has a high catalytic activity but as a precious metal it is very expensive. Platinum is the primary contribution to the high cost of fuel cells compared to batteries and internal combustion engines. Michigan State University’s invention is a process for making a non-precious metal catalyst with high activity. The key ingredients in the process are: (1) a pyrolysis step that takes place at high pressure in order to create high precursor activity that leads to high catalytic site density; and (2) a pyridinic nitrogen precursor that leads to pyridinic nitrogen sites that are considered ideal for catalysis. The invention identifies a material system and chemical synthesis with experimentally determined optimal parameters to achieve an effective catalyst surface area and reduction current at a low temperature. Applications: (1) Fuel cells offer higher energy density than batteries enabling new electronic devices.Fuel cells can be used for example in portable applications combined heat and power generation or backup power systems. (2) Once less expensive catalysts are identified and production scaled fuel cells are expected to largely compete with traditional energy sources in four domains: handheld electronic devices portable generators stationary fuel cells and road transportation. (3) Other potential markets include backup power for telecommunications devices materials handling forklifts trucks mobile electronic devices for remote regions and military. IP Protection Status: Patent pending
(1) Lower cost: For selected applications where a lower activity can be tolerated the process would replace platinum with non-precious metals bound to nitrogenous graphitic material. (2) Scalable synthesis: The invention uses a convenient high pressure pyrolysis method and the proportions of precursors are potentially customizable to attain different levels of catalytic activity and longevity. (3) Environmentally friendly: Hydrogen-based fuel cells produce only water as a byproduct.