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Researchers develop durable and active Fe-N-C catalyst for fuel cells

A team from the University of Buffalo (UB), Purdue University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), with colleagues from other institutions, has developed a highly durable and active Fe–N–C catalyst for proton-exchange membrane fuel cells.

The stability improvement demonstrated by the catalyst represents a critical step in developing viable Fe–N–C catalysts to overcome the cost barriers of hydrogen fuel cells for numerous applications. A paper on their work is published in Nature Energy.

Nitrogen-coordinated single atom iron sites (FeN4) embedded in carbon (Fe–N–C) are the most active platinum group metal-free oxygen reduction catalysts for proton-exchange membrane fuel cells. However, current Fe–N–C catalysts lack sufficient long-term durability and are not yet viable for practical applications. Here we report a highly durable and active Fe–N–C catalyst synthesized using heat treatment with ammonia chloride followed by high-temperature deposition of a thin layer of nitrogen-doped carbon on the catalyst surface.

We propose that catalyst stability is improved by converting defect-rich pyrrolic N-coordinated FeN4 sites into highly stable pyridinic N-coordinated FeN4 sites. The stability enhancement is demonstrated in membrane electrode assemblies using accelerated stress testing and a long-term steady-state test (>300 h at 0.67 V), approaching a typical Pt/C cathode (0.1 mgPt cm−2).

—Liu et al.

The best fuel cell catalysts currently come from the platinum-group metal family. While efficient and durable, these metals are expensive because they are rare. As a result, scientists are seeking less costly alternatives.

One such alternative has been iron-based catalysts. Iron is appealing because it is abundant and inexpensive. However, it does not perform as well as platinum, especially because it lacks the durability to withstand the highly corrosive and oxidative environments inside fuel cells.

To overcome this barrier, the research team bonded four nitrogen atoms to the iron. Researchers then embedded the material in a few layers of graphene with accurate atomic control of local geometric and chemical structures.

The resulting structure is a vastly improved catalyst. The research team reported the catalyst:

  • Is believed to be the most efficient iron-based catalyst produced to date, exceeding the DOE’s 2025 target for electric current density.

  • Achieved a durability rating that approaches platinum group catalysts.

All this points to the iron-based catalyst’s potential to make fuel cells, particularly hydrogen fuel cells, much more affordable for commercial use, said lead author Gang Wu, PhD, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Researchers are planning follow-up studies to further improve the catalyst.

The study was supported the US Department of Energy and the US National Science Foundation. UB and Giner have filed joint patent applications naming Wu and two co-inventors.


  • Liu, S., Li, C., Zachman, M.J. et al. (2022) “Atomically dispersed iron sites with a nitrogen–carbon coating as highly active and durable oxygen reduction catalysts for fuel cells.” Nat Energy doi: 10.1038/s41560-022-01062-1



Im not interrested to buy because it will still be more costly than a hydrogen ice car. Also the hydrogen for ice car can be slightly contaminated and so the hydrogen can be cheaper at the pump and hydrogen ice engine are more durable than a fuelcell. If they are serious about hydrogen we can fight climate change more successfully than pure battery car because of cheaper cost for a hydrogen package. It is important to begin now and bypass the nightmare of battery. Let tesla go bankrupt, it cost too much. Hurry for hydrogen, i will be ready to buy maybe before 2030 if i am lucky.


@Gorr, take a break from the H2 coolaid! Your going to lose based on free market, first movers advantage. Electricity is everywhere. H2 distribution will always be a cost problem.



Gorr is somewhat particular in his take on hydrogen, which is why most of us here leave him to do his thing.

However, your statements on hydrogen are not based on, for instance, the IPCC and just about everyone else's studies of what we have to do to decarbonise.

I can only imagine that they are based entirely on light vehicle transport, where for sure for most private use batteries have significant advantages.

There are loads of sectors of the economy where decarbonisation is somewhere between difficult and impossible without extensive use of hydrogen and its derivatives.

Nor are your remarks on distribution based on anything other than present tech and implementation developed for other purposes.

Industrially we have been piping hydrogen around for hundreds of kilometers for many decades in large quantities just fine.

And the next decade will be transformational in for distribution.

It has to be, if we are to decarbonise in sectors where just electricity and batteries simply can't do the job.

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