Nanoscience and Microsystems ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 3-23-2017


Fuel cells have the potential to be a pollution-free, low-cost, and energy efficient alternative to the internal combustion engine for transportation and small-scale stationary power applications. The current state of fuel cell technology has already achieved two of these three lofty goals. The remaining barrier to wide-scale deployment is the high cost, which is primarily caused by dependence on large amounts of platinum to catalyze the energy conversion reactions. To overcome this barrier and facilitate the integration of fuel cells into mainstream applications, research into a new class of catalyst materials that do not require platinum is needed.

There has been a significant amount of research effort directed toward the development of platinum-group metal free (PGM-free) catalysts, yet there is a lack of consensus on both the engineering parameters necessary to improve the technology and the fundamental science that would facilitate rational design. I have engaged in research on PGM-free catalysts based on inexpensive and abundant reagents, specifically: nicarbazin and iron. Catalysts made from these precursors have previously proven to be among the best PGM-free catalysts, but their continued advancement suffered from the same lack of understanding that besets all catalysts in this class. The work I have performed address both engineering concerns and fundamental underlying principles. I present results demonstrating correlations between physical structure, chemical speciation, and synthesis parameters, as well as addressing active site chemistry and likely locations.

My research presented herein introduces new morphology analysis techniques and elucidates several key structure-to-property characteristics of catalysts derived from iron and nicarbazin. I discuss the development and application of a new length-scale specific surface analysis technique that allows for analysis of well-defined size ranges from a few nm to several microns. The existing technique of focused ion beam tomography is modified and optimized for platinum-group metal free catalyst layers, facilitating direct observation of catalyst integration into catalyst layers. I present evidence supporting the hypothesis that atomically dispersed iron coordinated with nitrogen are the dominant active sites in these catalysts. Further, that the concentration of surface oxides in the carbon structure, which can be directly influenced by synthesis parameters, correlates with both the concentration of active sites in the material and with fuel cell performance. Catalyst performance is hindered by the addition of carbon nanotubes and by the presence of metallic iron. Evidence consistent with the catalytic active sites residing in the graphitic plane is also presented.


Fuel cell, catalysis, PGM-free, structure-to-property, energy, surface analysis

Document Type




Degree Name

Nanoscience and Microsystems

Level of Degree


Department Name

Nanoscience and Microsystems

First Committee Member (Chair)

Plamen Atanassov

Second Committee Member

Kateryna Artyushkova

Third Committee Member

Fernando Garzon

Fourth Committee Member

Scott Calabrese-Barton

Fifth Committee Member

Iryna Zenyuk