Laser turns graphene into catalyst for fuel cells

"These composites, which have less than 1 percent metal, respond as 'super catalysts' for fuel-cell applications. Other methods to do this take far more steps and require expensive metals and expensive carbon precursors," says James Tour. (Credit: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Chemists have found a way to embed metallic nanoparticles into graphene and turn the material into a useful catalyst for fuel cells and other applications. The material could replace expensive metals like platinum in catalytic fuel-cell applications in which oxygen and hydrogen are converted to water and electricity.

The type of graphene used to create the material was developed last year in the lab of James Tour, a chemist at Rice University. This laser-induced graphene is a flexible film with a surface of porous graphene made by exposing a common plastic known as polyimide to a commercial laser-scribing beam. The researchers have now found a way to enhance the product with reactive metals.

Metallic nanoparticles embedded into laser-induced graphene
Metallic nanoparticles embedded into laser-induced graphene. (Credit: Tour Group/Rice University)

The researchers call the material “metal oxide-laser induced graphene” (MO-LIG).

“The wonderful thing about this process is that we can use commercial polymers, with simple inexpensive metal salts added,” Tour says. “We then subject them to the commercial laser scriber, which generates metal nanoparticles embedded in graphene. So much of the chemistry is done by the laser, which generates graphene in the open air at room temperature.

“These composites, which have less than 1 percent metal, respond as ‘super catalysts’ for fuel-cell applications. Other methods to do this take far more steps and require expensive metals and expensive carbon precursors.”

Initially, the researchers made laser-induced graphene with commercially available polyimide sheets. Later, they infused liquid polyimide with boron to produce laser-induced graphene with a greatly increased capacity to store an electrical charge, which made it an effective supercapacitor.

For the latest iteration, they mixed the liquid and one of three concentrations containing cobalt, iron, or molybdenum metal salts. After condensing each mixture into a film, they treated it with an infrared laser and then heated it in argon gas for half an hour at 750 degrees Celsius.

Cover water into hydrogen

That process produced robust MO-LIGs with metallic, 10-nanometer particles spread evenly through the graphene.

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Tests showed their ability to catalyze oxygen reduction, an essential chemical reaction in fuel cells. Further doping of the material with sulfur allowed for hydrogen evolution, another catalytic process that converts water into hydrogen, Tour says.

“Remarkably, simple treatment of the graphene-molybdenum oxides with sulfur, which converted the metal oxides to metal sulfides, afforded a hydrogen evolution reaction catalyst, underscoring the broad utility of this approach,” he says.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative supported the research, which appears in the journal ACS Nano.

Source: Rice University