Nitrogen-Doped Carbon Materials as Oxygen Reduction Reaction Catalysts for Metal-Air Fuel Cells and Batteries
Metal air battery has captured the spotlight recently as a promising class of sustainable energy storage for the future energy systems. Metal air batteries offer many attractive features such as high energy density, environmental benignity, as well as ease of fuel storage and handling. In addition, wide range of selection towards different metals exists where different energy capacity can be achieved via careful selection of different metals. The most energy dense systems of metal-air battery include lithium-air, aluminum-air and zinc-air. Despite the choice of metal electrode, oxygen reduction (ORR) occurs on the air electrode and oxidation occurs on the metal electrode. The oxidation of metal electrode is a relatively facile reaction compared to the ORR on the air electrode, making latter the limiting factor of the battery system. The sluggish ORR kinetics greatly affects the power output, efficiency, and lifetime of the metal air battery. One solution to this problem is the use of active, affordable and stable catalyst to promote the rate of ORR. Currently, platinum nanoparticles supported on conductive carbon (Pt/C) are the best catalyst for ORR. However, the prohibitively high cost and scarcity of platinum raise critical issues regarding the economic feasibility and sustainability of platinum-based catalysts. Cost reduction via the use of novel technologies can be achieved by two approaches. The first approach is to reduce platinum loading in the catalyst formulation. Alternatively platinum can be completely eliminated from the catalyst composition. The aim of this work is to identify and synthesize alternative catalysts for ORR toward metal air battery applications without the use of platinum re other precious metals (i.e., palladium, silver and gold). Non-precious metal catalysts (NPMC) have received immense international attentions owing to the enormous efforts in pursuit of novel battery and fuel cell technologies. Different types of NPMC such as transition metal alloys, transition metal or mixed metal oxides, chalcogenides have been investigated as potential contenders to precious metal catalysts. However, the performance and stability of these catalysts are still inferior in comparison. Nitrogen-doped carbon materials (NCM) are an emerging class of catalyst exhibiting great potential towards ORR catalysis. In comparison to the metal oxides, MCM show improved electrical conductivity. Furthermore, NCM exhibit higher activity compared to chalcogenides and transition metal alloys. Additional benefits of NCM include the abundance of carbon source and environmental benignity. Typical NCM catalyst is composed of pyrolyzed transition metal macrocycles supported by high surface area carbon. These materials have demonstrated excellent activity and stability. However, the degradation of these catalysts often involves the destruction of active sites containing the transition metal centre. To further improve the durability and mass transport of NCM catalyst, a novel class of ORR catalyst based on nitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes (NCNT) is investigated in a series of studies. The initial investigation focuses on the synthesis of highly active NCNT using different carbon-nitrogen precursors. This study investigated the effect of using cyclic hydrocarbon (pyridine) and aliphatic hydrocarbon (ethylenediamine) towards the formation and activity of NCNT. The innate structure of the cyclic hydrocarbon promotes the formation of NCNT to provide higher product yield; however, the aliphatic hydrocarbon promotes the formation of surface defects where the nitrogen atoms can be incorporated to form active sites for ORR. As a result, a significant increase in the ORR activity of 180 mV in half-wave potential is achieved when EDA was used as carbon-nitrogen precursor. In addition, three times higher limiting current density was observed for the NCNT synthesized from ethylenediamine. Based on the conclusion where highly active NCNT was produced from aliphatic hydrocarbon, similar carbon-nitrogen precursors with varying carbon to nitrogen ratio in the molecular structure (ethylenediamine, 1, 3-diaminopropane, 1, 4-diaminobutane) were adapted for the synthesis of NCNT. The investigation led to the conclusion that higher nitrogen to carbon ratio in the molecular structure of the precursors benefits the formation of active NCNT for ORR catalysis. The origin of such phenomena can be correlated with the higher relative nitrogen content of the resultant NCNT synthesized from aliphatic carbon precursor that provided greater nitrogen to carbon ratio. As the final nitrogen content increased in the molecular structure, the half-wave potential of the resultant NCNT towards ORR catalysis was increased by 120 mV. The significant improvement hints the critical role of nitrogen content towards ORR catalysis. To further confirm the correlation between the nitrogen content and ORR activity, another approach was used to control the final nitrogen content in the resultant NCNT. In the third investigation, a carbon-nitrogen precursor (pyridine) was mixed with a carbon precursor (ethanol) to form an admixture. The relative proportion of the two components of the admixture was varied to produce NCNT with different nitrogen content. By adopting this methodology, potential effect of different carbon-nitrogen precursors on the formation of NCNT can be eliminated since the same precursors were used for NCNT synthesis. Based on the electrochemical evaluations, the nitrogen content can be positively correlated to ORR activity. Among the NCNT samples, 41% higher limiting current density was achieved for 0.7 at. % increase in overall nitrogen content. Furthermore, the selectivity of the NCNT catalyst with higher nitrogen content favours the production of water molecule—the favourable product in metal-air battery by 43%. ORR catalyst is an outer-sphere electron transfer reaction whereby the reactants interact with the surface of catalysts. Consequently, the surface structure can be a determining factor towards the ORR activity of the NCNT in addition to the nitrogen content. In the forth investigation, the surface structure of NCNT was tailored to differentiate the ORR activity of smooth and rugged surface while controlling the overall nitrogen content to be similar. NCNT having different surface structures but similar nitrogen content (approximately 2.7 to 2.9 at. %) were successfully synthesized using different synthesis catalysts. Comparison of the two NCNT catalysts showing different surface structure resulted in a 130 mV increased in half-wave potential favouring the NCNT with more rugged surface structure. This study provided insights to the potential effects of synthesis catalyst towards directing the surface structure and the ORR activity of NCNT. Through a series of studies, the important parameters affecting the ORR performance of NCNT were elucidated and the most active NCNT catalyst synthesized was used for testing in a prototype zinc-air battery. The fifth study evaluated the performance of NCNT catalyst in different concentrations of alkaline electrolyte and at different battery voltage. An increase in the electrolyte’s alkaline strength improved the battery performance to a certain degree until the increasing viscosity impeded the performance of the battery system. The zinc-air battery employing NCNT as ORR catalyst produced a maximum battery power density of 69.5 mWcm-2 in 6M potassium hydroxide. The fifth study illustrated the great potential of NCNT towards the ORR catalysis for metal-air batteries. In combination, the series of investigations presented in this document provide a comprehensive study of a novel material and its application towards ORR catalysis in metal air batteries. Specifically, this report provides insights into the fundamentals of NCNT synthesis; the origins of ORR activity and the optimal operating conditions of NCNT in a prototype zinc-air battery. The excellent performance of NCNT warrants further studies of this material in greater details, and the information presented in this document will create a basis for future investigations towards ORR catalysis.