Fudan Material Science Researchers Make New Progress in Developing Hydrogen Evolution Electrocatalysts

In recent years, the urgency of solving the pollution problems caused by fossil energy has given rise to the development and the use of clean and sustainable energy. Hydrogen, a clean energy source with rich raw materials, high combustion value and zero pollution, has received high expectations from scientists and the public as an alternative to fossil fuels. To develop hydrogen energy technology, it is indispensable to convert water into hydrogen though electrochemical reaction. However, the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) requires high overpotential. Therefore, considerable efforts have been devoted to developing electrocatalysts that can be applied to reduce the energy barrier and increase the reaction rate.

Recently, the research teams of Professor Wu Renbing and Professor Fang Fang have made new progress in the research of efficient and inexpensive metals as hydrogen evolution electrocatalysts. And their research paper “Ultrafine Co Nanoparticles Encapsulated in Carbon Nanotubes-Grafted Graphene Sheets as Advanced Electrocatalysts for Hydrogen Evolution Reaction” was published on Advance Material, an authoritative journal of material science.

The hydrogen evolution reaction (HER), or namely water-splitting, is only efficient and inexpensive with the help of a highly active electrocatalyst. To date, platinum is the most effective HER electrocatalyst. Unfortunately, the scarcity and high cost of the metal severely hinder their broad utilization. To address this issue, many researchers hope to develop an alternative to precious-metal HER catalysts. However, although non-precious transition metals, such as iron, cobalt, and nickel, have good catalytic properties, their catalytic effect is still far from desirable than that of platimun. Furthermore, the nanoparticles these transition metals produced during the catalytic process, and the inevitable aggregation of the nanoparticles eventually reduce the surface activity, which results in undesirable catalytic performances.

To enhance the performance of transition metals as catalysts for hydrogen evolution reaction, the research teams of Professor Wu Renbing and Professor Fang Fang developed a novel way to synthesize ultrafine cobalt nanoparticles, nitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide, so as to solve the problems arose from nanoparticles of transition metals. The synthesized material achieved comparable catalytic activity and stability with respect to platimum. Chen Ziliang, the first author of the team’s paper on Advanced Material, is a PhD student in the Department of Material Science. Professor Wu Renbing and Professor Fang Fang are corresponding authors of the paper. The research project is financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Young High-level Talents Plan of the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the CPC, and Zhuoxue Project of Fudan University.

The team’s breakthrough in the study of HER electrocatalysts has not only promoted the optimization of water-splitting technology, but also affirmed the possibility of extracting hydrogen of higher purity with lower cost. These findings pave a new way for inexpensive electrocatalyst, and will have a far-reaching impact on the clean energy industry, especially the area of hydrogen energy utilization.