Using the PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) to Transition Society Seamlessly and Profitably From Fossil Fuel to 100% Renewable Energy
Frost & Sullivan: carsharing membership to reach 9.8M in 2025; 19.9% CAGR

New non-metallic molecular catalyst system approaches efficiency of platinum in fuel cell oxygen reduction reaction

A team of chemists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has demonstrated a new molecular (i.e., non-metallic) catalyst system for the fuel cell oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) that approaches the efficiency of platinum. Although molecular catalysts have been explored before, earlier examples were much less efficient than the traditional platinum catalyst. An open access paper on their work is publishedin the journal ACS Central Science.

The new catalyst is composed of a mixture of nitroxyls and nitrogen oxides. These molecular partners play well together; one reacts well with the electrode while the other reacts efficiently with the oxygen.

While this catalyst combination has been used previously in aerobic oxidations, we didn't know if it would be a good fuel cell catalyst. It turns out that it is the most effective molecular catalyst system ever reported.

—UW-Madison chemistry Professor Shannon Stahl

Fuel cells are based on two complementary half-reactions: fuel (such as H2) oxidation and reduction of O2 to water. One of the gating factors for fuel cell efficiency is the slow kinetics of oxygen reduction; overcoming this requires a high-efficiency electrocatalyst. The predominant material at this point is platinum.

While molecular ORR catalysts—such as metalloporphyrins and related macrocyclic metal complexes—have been explored as alternatives to expensive platinum, these catalysts typically operate at potentials far from the thermodynamic limit and often generate hydrogen peroxide. Other aerobic oxidation reactions face similar issues.

Use of nitrogen oxide (NOx) co-catalysts provides a potential opportunity to overcome the limitations noted above. The reaction of nitric oxide (NO) with oxygen is kinetically facile and thermodynamically favorable, and it results in direct cleavage of the O−O bond of O2 to afford nitrogen dioxide (NO2) without forming H2O2 as an intermediate or byproduct.

Moreover, the proton-coupled steps for reduction of NO2 to NO exhibit standard potentials close to the thermodynamic potential for O2 reduction to water. The use of NOx-based mediators to achieve high-potential ORR, however, is limited by poor direct electrochemical reduction of NOx species. … An ideal mediator would exhibit facile kinetics at the electrode, in addition to undergoing rapid reaction with NOx species derived from O2 reduction.

The above considerations drew our attention to catalytic aerobic alcohol oxidation reactions that employ 2,2,6,6- tetramethylpiperidinyl-N-oxyl (TEMPO) or other organic nitroxyls in combination with NOx-based co-catalysts.

—Gerken and Stahl

The researchers speculated that the alcohol substrate could be replaced with an electrode to provide the basis for nitroxyl/NOx-mediated electrocatalytic O2 reduction.


The results presented in their paper validated this concept and showed that the nitroxyl/NOx co-catalysts enable O2 reduction at overpotentials at least 200 mV lower than those previously attained with molecular ORR electrocatalysts.

Because the approach involves chemical reactions between gases, liquids and solids, moving from concept to demonstration was no small feat. Gerken spent months studying and optimizing each component of the setup they had envisioned before testing everything in a model system.

This work shows for the first time that molecular catalysts can approach the efficiency of platinum. And the advantage of molecules is that you can continue to modify their structure to climb further up the mountain to achieve even better efficiency.

—James Gerken

The work was supported by the US Department of Energy through the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontiers Research Center. Stahl and Gerken credit the center for promoting cross-pollination among various chemistry disciplines to open the door for future advances in this area.


  • James B. Gerken and Shannon S. Stahl (2015) “High-Potential Electrocatalytic O2 Reduction with Nitroxyl/NOx Mediators: Implications for Fuel Cells and Aerobic Oxidation Catalysis” ACS Central Science doi: 10.1021/acscentsci.5b00163



The solubility of oxygen in water is around 4 ppm at the operating temperature of hydrogen polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell. Hopefully,the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) occurs in the liquid water phase. Most fuel scientist think it occurs in the membrane phase. Low solubility of oxygen is one of the important reason for the high overvoltage of ORR.This causes the the ORR to be under the control of mass transfer resistance.Is it possible that the beneficial effect of Nitroxy/Nox is also to increase the solubility of oxygen during ORR.

The comments to this entry are closed.