Highly active atomically dispersed CoN4 fuel cell cathode catalysts derived from surfactant-assisted MOFs: carbon-shell confinement strategy†
Development of platinum group metal (PGM)-free catalysts for oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is essential for affordable proton exchange membrane fuel cells. Herein, a new type of atomically dispersed Co doped carbon catalyst with a core–shell structure has been developed via a surfactant-assisted metal–organic framework approach. The cohesive interactions between the selected surfactant and the Co-doped zeolitic imidazolate framework (ZIF-8) nanocrystals lead to a unique confinement effect. During the thermal activation, this confinement effect suppressed the agglomeration of Co atomic sites and mitigated the collapse of internal microporous structures of ZIF-8. Among the studied surfactants, Pluronic F127 block copolymer led to the greatest performance gains with a doubling of the active site density relative to that of the surfactant-free catalyst. According to density functional theory calculations, unlike other Co catalysts, this new atomically dispersed Co–N–C@F127 catalyst is believed to contain substantial CoN2+2 sites, which are active and thermodynamically favorable for the four-electron ORR pathway. The Co–N–C@F127 catalyst exhibits an unprecedented ORR activity with a half-wave potential (E1/2) of 0.84 V (vs. RHE) as well as enhanced stability in the corrosive acidic media. It also demonstrated high initial performance with a power density of 0.87 W cm−2 along with encouraging durability in H2–O2 fuel cells. The atomically dispersed Co site catalyst approaches that of the Fe–N–C catalyst and represents the highest reported PGM-free and Fe-free catalyst performance.