Scientists Supercharge Fuel Cells Using Caffeine

Hydrogen Fuel Cell in Lab

Researchers at Chiba University have discovered that adding caffeine to the platinum electrodes of fuel cells can significantly improve their efficiency by enhancing the oxygen reduction reaction. This breakthrough has the potential to lower the platinum requirements, thereby making fuel cells more cost-effective and efficient. This advancement is crucial for the wider adoption of fuel cells in various applications, including transportation and power generation, as part of the global shift towards sustainable energy sources.

Caffeine improves fuel cell performance by boosting the activity of the oxygen reduction reaction.

Amidst worldwide efforts to shift away from fossil fuels, fuel cells emerge as a notable source of energy without carbon emissions. These cells are made up of an anode and a cathode, divided by an electrolyte, and they directly transform the chemical energy of the fuel into electrical power. The fuel is fed to the anode, and an oxidizing agent, usually oxygen from the air, is supplied to the cathode.

In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen undergoes oxidation at the anode, producing hydrogen ions and electrons. The ions move through the electrolyte to the cathode, and electrons flow through an external circuit, generating electricity. At the cathode, oxygen combines with the hydrogen ions and electrons, resulting in water as the sole byproduct.

However, the presence of water affects the performance of the fuel cell. It reacts with the platinum (Pt) catalyst, forming a layer of platinum hydroxide (PtOH) on the electrode, which obstructs the efficient catalysis of the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR), leading to energy losses. To maintain efficient operation, fuel cells require a high Pt loading, which significantly increases the costs of fuel cells.

The Effect of Caffeine on the Oxygen Reduction Reaction Activity of Platinum Electrodes

Adsorbed structure of caffeine on well-defined Pt single crystal electrodes and the activity of air electrode of fuel cell before (blue bar) and after (orange bar) caffeine modification. Credit: Professor Nagahiro Hoshi from Chiba University

Breakthrough in Fuel Cell Catalyst Efficiency

Now, in a study recently published in the journal Communications Chemistry, Professor Nagahiro Hoshi, along with Masashi Nakamura, Ryuta Kubo, and Rui Suzuki, all from the Graduate School of Engineering at Chiba University, Japan, have found that adding caffeine to certain platinum electrodes can increase the activity of the ORR. This discovery has the potential to reduce platinum requirements, making fuel cells more affordable and efficient.

“Caffeine, one of the chemicals contained in coffee, enhances the activity of a fuel cell reaction 11-fold on a well-defined Pt electrode of which atomic arrangement has a hexagonal structure,” says Prof. Hoshi.

The Impact of Caffeine on Platinum Electrodes

To assess caffeine’s impact on the ORR, researchers measured current flow through platinum electrodes immersed in an electrolyte containing caffeine. These platinum electrodes had surface atoms arranged in specific directions, namely (111), (110), and (100). There was a notable improvement in the electrode’s ORR activity with an increase in caffeine concentration in the electrolyte. Caffeine, when present, adsorbs onto the electrode’s surface, effectively preventing hydrogen adsorption and the formation of Pt oxide on the electrode. However, the effect of the caffeine depended on the orientation of the platinum atoms on the electrode’s surface.

At a caffeine molar concentration of 1 × 10−6, the ORR activity on Pt(111) and Pt(110) increased by 11 and 2.5 times, respectively, with no noticeable effect on Pt(100). To understand this difference, the researchers investigated the molecular orientation of caffeine on the electrode surface using Infrared Reflection Absorption Spectroscopy. They found that caffeine gets absorbed on Pt(111) and Pt(110) surfaces with its molecular plane perpendicular to the surface. However, on Pt(100), steric hindrances cause it to be attached with its molecular plane tilted relative to the surface of the electrode.

“The increased ORR activity of Pt(111) and Pt(110) was attributed to the decreased PtOH coverage and lower steric hindrance of the adsorbed caffeine. Conversely, for Pt(100), the effect of decreasing PtOH was counteracted by the steric hindrance of the adsorbed caffeine, and thus caffeine did not affect the ORR activity,” explains Prof. Hoshi.

Unlike batteries with limited lifespans, fuel cells can generate power as long as fuel is supplied, making them suitable for various applications, including vehicles, buildings, and space missions. The proposed method has the potential to improve the designs of fuel cells and lead to their widespread use.

Reference: “Enhanced oxygen reduction reaction on caffeine-modified platinum single-crystal electrodes” by Nagahiro Hoshi, Masashi Nakamura, Ryuta Kubo and Rui Suzuki, 3 February 2024, Communications Chemistry.
DOI: 10.1038/s42004-024-01113-6

The study was funded by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

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