Sustainable carbon nanomaterials for electrochemical energy conversion in hydrogen fuel cells

   Department of Chemical and Process Engineering

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  Dr Stephen Lyth  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

The Hydrogen Economy will help to shift society away from fossil fuels and contribute to decarbonisation. Electrochemical processes are at the heart of the hydrogen economy providing a means to convert renewable energy into green hydrogen via electrolysis or converting hydrogen into electrical power using fuel cells. However, it is important to ensure that hydrogen-related processes do not rely on inherently unsustainable technologies or materials. For example, lithium-ion batteries are closely related to fuel cells, but the rapid scale up of battery electric vehicles has placed increasing demand on lithium and cobalt extraction, with significant ecological and ethical implications. Similarly, polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells also use unsustainable materials today. The most notable is the catalyst, which comprises platinum and cobalt (both critical raw materials) in state-of-the-art systems. Furthermore, the carbon black catalyst support is derived from spray pyrolysis of petroleum products. Fortunately, there is still time to replace these problematic materials at this early stage of technological development, i.e. before path dependencies are established. For example, research groups around the world are striving to create new electrocatalyst materials which avoid the use of platinum group metals (PGMs). These new catalysts generally comprise metal-decorated nitrogen-doped carbon materials.

Our group has significant expertise in this field, and your responsibility will be to make further advances in this exciting field. You will first focus on the synthesis and scale up of carbon nanomaterials from sustainable precursors such as bioethanol or biomass, using protocols previously developed within our group. The materials will then be characterised using a variety of techniques. The porosity and surface area will be investigated using nitrogen gas adsorption, the microstructure will be characterised using electron microscopy, and the chemical structure will be probed using X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and Raman spectroscopy. You will then investigate modification of the carbon nanomaterials. You will investigate the different effects of steam activation, CO2 activation, and KOH activation on the porosity of your carbon nanomaterials, whilst endeavouring to understand any trends which arise. Next, you will investigate doping of the carbon nanomaterials with heteroatoms such as nitrogen, using sustainable nitrogen sources such as urea, and investigate the effects of changing the nitrogen contents on the materials properties. Then, you will select a variety of transition metal containing precursors including metal acetates, metal chlorides and metal phthalocyanines. These will be mixed with your carbons and heated to leave metal atoms decorated on the carbon surface. The effects of loading and heating conditions will be investigated. Furthermore, you will investigate the above materials as electrocatalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction, which occurs at the cathode of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells. You will use voltammetry techniques to evaluate the catalytic activity and durability of your materials. You will investigate and understand how the synthesis protocols and materials properties affect the catalytic activity. Finally, you will fabricate membrane electrode assemblies with your most promising catalysts to evaluate the performance in real fuel cells. 

In addition to undertaking cutting edge research, students are also registered for the Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Development (PGCert), which is a supplementary qualification that develops a student’s skills, networks and career prospects.

Information about the host department can be found by visiting:

Chemistry (6) Engineering (12) Materials Science (24)

Funding Notes

Students applying should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum 2.1 undergraduate degree in a relevant engineering/science discipline, and be highly motivated to undertake multidisciplinary research.
This PhD project is initially offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with their own funding, or those applying to funding sources. However, excellent candidates will be eligible to be considered for a University scholarship.

Where will I study?

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