Non-platinum group metal (non-PGM) oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) catalysts have been widely reported, but their application in proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) is challenging because of their poor performance in acidic environments. Here, [BMIM][NTf₂] ionic liquid (IL) modification of microporous ZnCoNC catalysts (derived from ZIF-ZnCo) is investigated to study their behavior in PEMFCs and to elucidate the catalytic mechanisms in practical operation. The high O₂ solubility of ILs enhances the utilization of active sites with porous ZnCoNC, and their hydrophobic nature facilitates the water transport during fuel cell operation. The half-cell measurement in aqueous HClO₄ shows that with the 20 wt % IL modification, the electron-transfer number increases from 2.58 to 3.88, approaching the desired 4-electron-transfer ORR. The power density obtained shows 140% improvement in single-cell PEMFC tests. The catalyst also yields an interesting performance in alkaline anion-exchange membrane fuel cells.
In anion exchange membrane fuel cells, catalytic reactions occur at a well-defined three-phase interface, wherein conventional heterogeneous catalyst layer structures exacerbate problems, such as low catalyst utilization and limited mass transfer. We developed a structural engineering strategy to immobilize a molecular catalyst tetrakis(4-methoxyphenyl)porphyrin cobalt(II) (TMPPCo) on the side chains of an ionomer (polyfluorene, PF) to obtain a composite material (PF-TMPPCo), thereby achieving a homogeneous catalysis environment inside ion-flow channels, with greatly improved mass transfer and turnover frequency as a result of 100 % utilization of the catalyst molecules. The unique structure of the homogeneous catalysis system comprising interconnected nanoreactors exhibits advantages of low overpotential and high fuel-cell power density. This strategy of reshaping of the catalyst layer structure may serve as a new platform for applications of many molecular catalysts in fuel cells.