A sol-gel process has been developed as a superior alternative to a prior process for making platinum-ruthenium alloy catalysts for electro-oxidation of methanol in fuel cells. The starting materials in the prior process are chloride salts of platinum and ruthenium. The process involves multiple steps, is time-consuming, and yields a Pt-Ru product that has relatively low specific surface area and contains some chloride residue. Low specific surface area translates to incomplete utilization of the catalytic activity that might otherwise be available, while chloride residue further reduces catalytic activity ("poisons" the catalyst). In contrast, the sol-gel process involves fewer steps and less time, does not leave chloride residue, and yields a product of greater specific area and, hence, greater catalytic activity.
In this sol-gel process (see figure), the starting materials are platinum(II) acetylacetonate [Pt(C5H7O2)2, also denoted Ptacac] and ruthenium(III) acetylacetonate [Ru(C5H7O2)3, also denoted Ru-acac]. First, Pt-acac and Ru-acac are dissolved in acetone at the desired concentrations (typically, 0.00338 moles of each salt per 100 mL of acetone) at a temperature of 50°C. A solution of 25 percent tetramethylammonium hydroxide [(CH3)4NOH, also denoted TMAH] in methanol is added to the Pt-acac/Ru-acac/acetone solution to act as a high-molecular-weight hydrolyzing agent. The addition of the TMAH counteracts the undesired tendency of Pt-acac and Ru-acac to precipitate as separate phases during the subsequent evaporation of the solvent, thereby helping to yield a desired homogeneous amorphous gel. The solution is stirred for 10 minutes, then the solvent is evaporated until the solution becomes viscous, eventually transforming into a gel. The viscous gel is dried in air at a temperature of 170°C for about 10 hours. The dried gel is crushed to make a powder that is the immediate precursor of the final catalytic product.
The precursor powder is converted to the final product in a controlled-atmosphere heat treatment. Desirably, the final product is a phase-pure (Pt phase only) Pt-Ru powder with a high specific surface area. The conditions of the controlled atmosphere heat are critical for obtaining the aforementioned desired properties. A typical heat treatment that yields best results for a catalytic alloy of equimolar amounts of Pt and Ru consists of at least two cycles of heating to a temperature of 300°C and holding at 300°C for several hours, all carried out in an atmosphere of 1 percent O2 and 99 percent N2. The resulting powder consists of crystallites with typical linear dimensions of <10 nm. Tests have shown that the powder is highly effective in catalyzing the electro-oxidation of methanol.
This work was done by Sekharipuram Narayanan and Thomas Valdez of Caltech, and Prashant Kumta and Y. Kim of Carnegie-Mellon University for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Materials category.
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