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Understanding the factors limiting proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers using in-situ transmission electron microscopy (TEM)

   Department of Materials

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  Prof S Haigh  Applications accepted all year round  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis is a key route to production of green hydrogen from renewable electricity. Our ambition is to establish the fundamental limits to the performance of proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers and use this to develop new materials with improved properties. The anode material for PEM electrolysis is required to catalyse oxygen evolution (2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e-), be relatively stable under harsh O2 evolution conditions (low pH and oxidising potentials), as well as to allow conduction of the electrons evolved in the reaction. Generally, this limits the currently viable solutions to oxides of iridium, a highly expensive and scarce element. Even Ir, which is the most stable catalyst, can dissolve from the anode and redeposit at the cathode, potentially poisoning H2 evolution[1] and limiting PEM electrolyser lifetimes. Non precious metal oxide catalysts based on Mn corrode at much higher rates than IrOx.[2] Research by Stephens’ group has shown that addition of stable inactive materials to the anode can conceal the undercoordinated sites (i.e. those that are most prone to dissolution), preventing dissolution without compromising activity for example, Ti on MnO2[2] and Ir on RuO2.[3] Hence, it should be possible to tailor activity and stability independently of each other, provided we can identify the mechanisms controlling these two processes.

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is one of the few tools able to directly study a catalyst’s structure and chemistry with atomic resolution and single atom sensitivity. New in-situ capabilities developed in Manchester enable this to be done at atomic spatial resolution for solid materials when surrounded by liquid of gaseous environments

Project aims

This project aims to apply new in-situ TEM imaging capabilities to understand how promotor elements prevent dissolution. The project will be based at the University of Manchester and the student will learn to use Manchester’s world leading TEM capabilities to image the structure and elemental distribution of electrode materials, in realistic conditions and during electrochemical cycling. You will develop expertise in complementary characterisation methods, and in Python analysis of large, complex data sets. You will also work closely with Stephens’ group at Imperial to apply the insights gained to design improved electrode materials. You will work as part of an interdisciplinary team, collaborate with expert scientists at bp, attend international conferences and have opportunities to undertake experiments at national and international facilities. It is expected that key results will be publishable and will lead to high impact publications in world leading journals. 

Applicant requirements

Applicants should have or expect to achieve at least a 2.1 honours degree in Chemistry, Physics, Engineering or related discipline. 


At Manchester we offer a range of scholarships, studentships and awards at university, faculty and department level, to support both UK and overseas postgraduate researchers. 

For more information, visit our funding page or search our funding database for specific scholarships, studentships and awards you may be eligible for. 

Before you apply 

We strongly recommend that you contact the lead supervisor for this project before you apply. 

How to apply 

To be considered for this project you’ll need to complete a formal application through our online application portal

When applying, you’ll need to specify the full name of this project, the name of your supervisor, how you’re planning on funding your research, details of your previous study, and names and contact details of two referees

Your application will not be processed without all of the required documents submitted at the time of application, and we cannot accept responsibility for late or missed deadlines. Incomplete applications will not be considered.  

If you have any questions about making an application, please contact our admissions team by emailing [Email Address Removed]

Equality, diversity and inclusion 

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact.

We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status. 

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder). 


[1] Microscopic insights on the degradation of a PEM water electrolyzer with ultra-low
catalyst loading. Yu et al. Applied Catalysis B: Environmental 260, 118194, (2020).
[2] Toward an Active and Stable Catalyst for Oxygen Evolution in Acidic Media: Ti-Stabilized MnO2 Frydendal et al. Adv. Energy Mater. 5, 1500991, (2015).
[3] Importance of Surface IrOx in Stabilizing RuO2 for Oxygen Evolution, Escudero-Escribano et al. Journal of Physical Chemistry B 122, 947, (2018).
[4] In situ TEM imaging of solution-phase chemical reactions using 2D-heterostructure mixing cells Kelly et al, Advanced Materials, 33, 2100668, (2021)
[5] Tracking single atoms in a liquid environment, Clark, et al (accepted in Nature, 2022)
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