Direct atomic-level insight into the active sites of a high-performance PGM-free ORR catalyst
Platinum group metal–free (PGM-free) metal-nitrogen-carbon catalysts have emerged as a promising alternative to their costly platinum (Pt)–based counterparts in polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFCs) but still face some major challenges, including (i) the identification of the most relevant catalytic site for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) and (ii) demonstration of competitive PEFC performance under automotive-application conditions in the hydrogen (H2)–air fuel cell. Herein, we demonstrate H2-air performance gains achieved with an iron-nitrogen-carbon catalyst synthesized with two nitrogen precursors that developed hierarchical porosity. Current densities recorded in the kinetic region of cathode operation, at fuel cell voltages greater than ~0.75 V, were the same as those obtained with a Pt cathode at a loading of 0.1 milligram of Pt per centimeter squared. The proposed catalytic active site, carbon-embedded nitrogen-coordinated iron (FeN4), was directly visualized with aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy, and the contributions of these active sites associated with specific lattice-level carbon structures were explored computationally.