Bio-inspired hybrid porous nanocomposites for catalyzing oxygen reduction

2011-2012 E²SHI Seed Grant

"In comparison to fossil fuel engines, hydrogen fuel cells are relatively quiet, and more importantly in today’s climate, offer low emissions. The biggest drawback is in efficiency. Currently, the catalysts used are expensive and do not work effectively enough. By increasing catalyst efficiency, the utility of fuel cells would expand."  - Dr. Jonah Erlebacher

Research Team

Jonah ErlebacherProfessor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, School of Engineering

David Goldberg, Professor, Department of Chemistry, School of Arts & Sciences


The oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is one of the key chemical reactions in a host of energy technologies, including fuel cells and air-breathing rechargeable batteries, but there is no efficient catalyst for this reaction that does not include an expensive precious metal component. The best catalysts currently available for this reaction require the precious metal platinum (Pt). Even with the Pt catalysts in place, nearly 80% of the losses in hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells are due to inefficiencies in ORR chemistry. Thus there is strong motivation to significantly improve the efficiencies of catalysts for the ORR while at the same time employing earth-abundant, inexpensive, and environmentally benign materials.

Dr. Erlebacher and Dr. Goldberg are addressing this challenge to develop a new chemical/materials architecture in order to develop new catalysts for chemical reduction of oxygen to water, the central bottleneck in fuel cells and hydrogen-powered energy. Their proposed catalysts:

  • Have no precious metals
  • Are composites of nanoporous materials (carbon), low melting temperature salts, & biologically-inspired organometallic catalysts
  • Are composite architectures that “trap” oxygen until it reacts
  • Should be able to be integrated into current fuel cell architectures

Developing a robust, efficient, precious-metal free catalyst for oxygen reduction would revolutionize all fuel cell and battery technologies.Eliminating the need for precious metals will reduce environmental damage and human health implications from extracting metals. The catalyst also offers a cost-effective approach to producing fuel cells and hydrogen-powered energy by using a readily available resource that does not produce carbon dioxide, one of the primary greenhouse gases connected to climate change.


Learn more about Dr. Erlebacher's research on fuel cell catalysis


Snyder, J., Livi, K., Erlebacher, J. (2013). "Oxygen Reduction Reaction Performance of MTBD beti -Encapsulated Nanoporous NiPt Alloy Nanoparticles." Advanced Functional Materials, 23(44), 5494-5501.

The fundamental reaction occurring inside a fuel cell is the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR), where
oxygen and hydrogen form water. The critical challenge for improving fuel cells is making an
advancement in the catalyst for ORR. Photo credit:

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