Pd-based Catalysts for Ethanol Oxidation in Alkaline Electrolyte

A. M. Sheikh, E. L. Silva, L. Moares, L. M. Antonini, Mohammed Y. Abellah, C. F. Malfatti

  Open Access OPEN ACCESS  Peer Reviewed PEER-REVIEWED

Pd-based Catalysts for Ethanol Oxidation in Alkaline Electrolyte

A. M. Sheikh1,, E. L. Silva2, L. Moares2, L. M. Antonini2, Mohammed Y. Abellah1, C. F. Malfatti2

1Department of Mechanical Engineering, South Valley University, Qena 83521, Egypt

2DEMET, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre 91501-970, RS, Brazil


Direct ethanol fuel cells (DEFCs) have received tremendous attention from academics recently since they can oxidize the liquid ethanol to produce electrical energy efficiently. In this work, five catalysts, which are single, binary, and ternary ones of Pd, Sn, and Ni respectively, are synthesized by the impregnation-reduction method to speed up the reaction kinetics of ethanol oxidation (EOR) in alkaline medium. The crystal structure is investigated by the X-ray diffraction (XRD) technique. The electrochemical performance is evaluated by the cyclic voltammetry (CV) and chronomperometry (CA) analyses. The best catalytic performance has been achieved by the bi-catalyst Pd40Ni60/C and the tri-catalyst Pd40Ni50Sn10/C. The reason, for that high performance, could be exemplified that Ni could generate OH- species at lower potentials.

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Cite this article:

  • Sheikh, A. M., et al. "Pd-based Catalysts for Ethanol Oxidation in Alkaline Electrolyte." American Journal of Mining and Metallurgy 2.4 (2014): 64-69.
  • Sheikh, A. M. , Silva, E. L. , Moares, L. , Antonini, L. M. , Abellah, M. Y. , & Malfatti, C. F. (2014). Pd-based Catalysts for Ethanol Oxidation in Alkaline Electrolyte. American Journal of Mining and Metallurgy, 2(4), 64-69.
  • Sheikh, A. M., E. L. Silva, L. Moares, L. M. Antonini, Mohammed Y. Abellah, and C. F. Malfatti. "Pd-based Catalysts for Ethanol Oxidation in Alkaline Electrolyte." American Journal of Mining and Metallurgy 2, no. 4 (2014): 64-69.

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1. Introduction

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that could generate electrical energy by oxidation and reduction of the externally supplied fuel and oxidant respectively [1]. One recent system of fuel cells is the direct ethanol fuel cell (DEFCs) in which the liquid ethanol is supplied into the anode. There are other liquid alcohols that could be applied directly into the anode such as the traditionally used methanol, formic acid, ethylene glycol and glycerol. DEFCs have received tremendous attention from the academics and researchers for the high potential advantages that ethanol could offer as a fuel for the anodic oxidation [2]. For instance, ethanol is liquid; thus easy of transport and storage unlike the hydrogen fuel and has satisfying energy density [3]. Moreover, ethanol is produced from biomass products (corn and sugar cane), so that is renewable. And compared to methanol, ethanol is not toxic and has lower membrane crossover rate [4]. Unfortunately, however, ethanol oxidation has sluggish reaction kinetics due to the difficult-to-be-cleaved C-C bond in every molecule added to CH3, and C-O bonds. Thus, there are many intermediate reaction products which are adsorbed strongly on the catalyst surface [5]. Moreover, the complete ethanol oxidation requires 12-electron release [6].

There are two DEFC systems according to the used solution; alkaline and acidic. The acidic ones have been applied extensively between the fuel cell anode and cathode, but the alkaline-electrolyte DEFC has proved intrinsic advantages as compared to the acidic counterparts: faster reaction kinetics, the non-Pt metal catalyst possibility, better water management, higher degree of freedom in selecting fuels, and no need for fluorinated polymers are some of them [1, 7, 8].

Especially, the use of non-Pt metal catalyst (like Pd) gives a big advantage for the alkaline-medium DEFC due to the fact that Pt is a noble metal and would increase the cell construction cost highly [1]. Pd in alkaline electrolyte has shown higher activity for ethanol oxidation reaction (EOR) compared to Pt in acidic one as result of high reaction speed in which, the OH- are the active species [5, 6]. Moreover, Pd in alkaline electrolyte has been proven to have higher CO tolerance than Pt. CO-poisoning - the attachment of CO molecules into the catalyst surface - reduces the available surface for further fuel oxidation [7]. Thus, Pd-catalysts are currently the best metal alternative to Pt-ones for alcohol oxidation in alkaline solution [9, 10].

The surface properties of the catalyst are important consideration for studying catalysis because the reaction takes place on the catalyst surface. Thus there is a vital relation between the activity and surface of the catalyst [9]. There are many research efforts that confirm the good effect of alloying Pd with other elements like Ni, and Sn to increase the catalyst activity. The bi-functional mechanism assumes the second element will form oxygenated species at lower applied potentials, and thus will save O2 to oxidize CO species to CO2 and therefore would facilitate the removal of other intermediate products from the catalyst surface. Furthermore, it supposes that, after CO oxidation, there will be more free Pd-active sites for ethanol adsorption/oxidation. Z. Zhang et al. [10] have prepared PdNi catalysts supported on carbon and have found that Ni addition refreshes the Pd active sites and increases the activity. Like Zhang, Yu-Chen Wei et al. [9] have shown that PdNi/C has achieved better performance than Pd/C and the further CeO2 addition has improved the PdNi activity. Moreover, T. Maiyalagan et al [11] have supported PdNi on carbon nanofibers (PdNi/CNF) and concluded that the onset EOR potential for the CNF supported catalyst is 200 mV lower than the carbon-supported one. Moreover, the EOR exchange current density for PdNi/CNF was 4 times higher than that for Pd/C [11].

Preparing bi-PdNi catalyst is still in need for further research, so that the endeavors continue to find better results for developing DEFC performance by using PdNi alloy. Zhen Qi et al. have fabricated nanocrystalline Pd40Ni60 by dealloying the ternary Al75Pd10Ni15 alloy [12]. Although they have noticed enhanced amorphous zones and lattice distortions for Pd40Ni60, the Pd40Ni60 catalytic performance was higher than nano-porous Pd for ethanol and methanol oxidation in alkaline solution [12]. C. Qiu et al. have found that the electrocatalytic activity of PdNi thin films depends on the composition, structure and surface morphology obtained under different deposition conditions [13]. In addition to Ni, Sn is known as having improving catalytic effect for Pd for ethanol oxidation in alkaline medium because it could from a ligand modifying the electronic structure of Pd and by recovering the active sites, it could change the geometric structure [14]. Wenxin Du et al. have formed different-composition PdSn/C catalysts and deduced that Pd86Sn14/C achieved the best performance [15]. Furthermore, PdSn/C has been proved more active and stable for EOR than PdRuSn/C in alkaline solution [2]. In this study, R. Modibedi et al. have used different ethanol concentrations and found that increasing the concentration up to 3M results in higher current density [2]. A similar conclusion has been drawn by Qinggang He et al. [7], although some times the Tafel slopes in this study shows the charge transfer for Pt faster than for Pd, yet the Pd has higher poison tolerance making it more stable [7].

In this work, single, bi-, and tri-catalysts of Pd, Ni, and Sn are synthesized by the impregnation-reduction method to improve the catalytic activity of Pd for ethanol oxidation reaction EOR in alkaline medium. Based on the literature review, it should be obvious the improving effects that Sn and Ni would introduce if alloyed with Pd for the catalyst structure and activity. Besides, adding both Ni and Sn, in a ternary alloy, would have further better results on the catalytic activity.

2. Experimental

2.1. Catalyst Preparation

The impregnation-reduction method was used to synthesize the five catalysts reported in this work. The carbon support is functionalized with nitric acid. The metal loading was 40% in every catalyst. The weights of respective three element precursors (PdCl2, NiCl2, and SnCl2) were first calculated according to their respective weight percentage (Table 1), and then they were mixed in a solution of ethylene glycol, which is a reducing agent, and deionized water; the percentage of ethylene glycol to deionized water was 75/25 (v/v). Then, the complete solution was dispersed in ultrasonic bath followed by adding the carbon support (0.14 mg) for 30 minutes. The total solution was then agitated in ultrasonic bath for the salts are impregnated. Following, the pH was increased to 12 using a NaOH solution. After that, it was stirred for 3 hours at 130°C followed by washing and centrifuging the catalyst materials. The final step was to dry the catalyst at 80 C.

Table 1. The impregnated weights of metal precursors for respective catalysts

2.2. Structure Characterization

To characterize the surface structure and the chemical composition of the catalyst, the techniques of X-ray diffraction (XRD) is used. XRD is carried out by a Philips, Brucker-Axe-Simens diffractometer; model D5000, year 1992 with wave length 0.154 nm of a Cu-Kα radiation generated at 40 kV and 40 mA and the objective is to find the chemical composition and the chacterize the crystal structure of the catalyst.

2.3. Electrochemical Evaluation

The electrochemical activity of the five prepared catalysts was evaluated using the techniques of cyclic voltammetry (CV), and chronomperometry (CA). A three-electrode half-cell was prepared used for both the CV and CA experiments. This cell is constituted of the reference electrode (RE), which is a saturated calomelan electrode (SCE), the counter electrode (CE), which was a platinum wire, and the working electrode (WE). WE is a graphite disc with an area of 0.29 cm2. It was prepared as it follows: 5 mg of the catalyst powder were mixed with 2 mL of ethanol (Merck) and 25 µL of Nafion (5%, Aldrich). The mixture was ultrasonically suspended to obtain ink slurry. Then, 136 mL of the slurry was spread on the working electrode to form a thin layer. The three-electrode half-cell was used both in the CV and CA annalyses and the scan rate was 50 mV/s. The solution concentration, applied in both CV and CA, was 1.0 M ethanol + 1.0 M NaOH.

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. XRD Analysis

Figure1 shows the XRD diffraction patterns for the five synthesized catalysts by the impregnation-reduction method in this work. It is shown the clear diffraction peaks of fcc facets of Pd (111), Pd (200), Pd (220), and Pd (311) are at 40.5°, 46.9°, 68.47°, and 82.43° respectively. From the same figure, it should be clear the largest peak shift noticed from the Pd/C is for Pd68Sn14/C catalysts for which Pd peaks (111), (200), (220), and (311) have been shifted about of 0.6° (Figure1, right), which means Pd and Sn have been alloyed together. Also, it is clear from the XRD pattern of Pd86Sn14/C the formation of SnO2 (101), and (211) peaks at 33.4° and 51.3° respectively. This result agrees with the findings of [2, 15]. On the contrary, Q. He et al. [7] has noticed intense peaks of Sn (311) and (211) at nearly 42.5° and 75.5° on their catalyst diffractogram Pd2.5Sn/C. About the Ni addition effect on the Pd structure, after adding the smallest Ni amount (40% in Pd60Ni40/C), the new PdNi peaks were closer to the original Pd peaks with a smaller shift (about 0.3° to the left) than that of Pd86Sn14/C ones. Furthermore, with increasing the Ni amount (to 60% in Pd40Ni60/C), the new PdNi peaks get even closer to the original Pd peaks and the shift in this case was even smaller about 0.2° to the left. It is clear also for Pd60Ni40/C and Pd40Ni60/C from XRD (Figure1, left), there are two separate Ni(OH)2 peaks of (100) and (110) at 34.7° and 60.5°. These two Ni(OH)2 have been noticed in the study of S. Y. Shen et al. [6] and also Z. Zhang et al. [10] have noticed them for Pd1Ni1/C they synthesized using NaBH4 reduction. Furthermore, NiO (220) at peak at 60º had been reported [11]. The smaller peak shift and the clear formation of Ni(OH)2 could be revised to the less homogeneous dispersion among the PdNi nanoparticles, although Pd and Ni form solid solutions in all elemental proportions as it is clear from their phase diagram (Figure 3). This can be declared by the study of Pai-Cheng Su et al. [8], who have argued that the degree of Ni and Pd alloying (36) is lower than that of Pd and Au revising this effect to the lower atomic radius difference between Pd and Au (7 pm) than that between Pd and Ni (13 pm). Other studies argue that the weak alloying between Pd and Ni is the result of low-temperature reduction synthesis [5, 10] although adding Ni in high proportion to Pt produces very good alloys using similar methods [6]. In case of the ternary catalyst Pd40Ni50Sn10/C, the Pd peaks are positioned nearly in the same diffraction angles of the binary Pd40Ni60/C ones. Again in this one, the peaks of Ni(OH)2 (110) and SnO2(211) are noticed. There is one third peak at nearly 34 that may be revised to Ni(OH)2 or SnO2 formation or both of them. Conversely, adding a much greater quantity of Ni does not produce very homogeneous nano-alloy with Pd [6]. However, Pai-Cheng Su et al. have alloyed Pd with both Ni and Au with ratio (3:1) and found that for either the binary or the ternary Pd catalyst, the particle size will decrease after adding Ni or/and Au to Pd [8]. In this study they highlighted that the Ni and Au addition to the catalyst may suppress the grain growth of the Pd, and thus the particle size is decreased.

The Scherrer’s equation (eq.1) is used to calculate the crystallite sizes for all catalysts. The palladium peak (220) is applied to deduce the crystallite sizes.


Where τ is the crystallite size nm, λ is the wave length (=0.154 nm for Cu-Kα), β is the full width at half-maximum (FWHM) (in radians), k is a constant (0.94 to spherical crystallites) and θ is the diffraction angle. Depending on the XRD results, the interplanar distance dhkl with Miller Indices (hkl) for the diverse catalysts could be estimated according to Bragg’s equation (2):


Where, n is the reflection order (1 for first order), λ is the wave length (in nanometers), and θ is the half of diffraction angle for the different Pd (111), and (220) peaks. Thus, it is possible to calculate the lattice parameter a by equation (3).

Figure 1. (left) XRD patterns of the prepared catalysts, (right) Enlarged Pd (111) peak

Table (2) shows the obtained crystallite sizes and lattice parameters for the different catalyst. According to this table, the Sn addition (Pd86Sn14/C and Pd40Ni50Sn10/C) resluts in increasing the lattice parameter although the inverse conclusion was drawn in ref [2], but more importantly the Sn presence clearly has reduced the Pd crystallite size from about 13 to 5 nm (Table 2). The study of Q. He et al. [7] has ended out, after adding 25% of Sn to Pd/C, the Pd crystal lattice has become orthorhombic system having Pnma space group with different lattice constants (a = 5.65 Å, b = 4.31 Å, and c = 8.12 Å). This effect could be explained that the maximum Sn amount, to be added to Pd/C and yet produces solid solution, is 17% as it could be declared from the PdSn phase diagram (Figure 3). The same conclusion about the effect of higher Sn proportion on the Pd crystal lattice (orthorhombic one) was confirmed by the study of W. Du et al. [15] after adding 53% of Sn to Pd/C.

Table 2. The XRD data results for the 5 prepared catalysts

On the other hand, the Ni addition (40%) and further Ni (60%) addition have caused the crystallite size to increase which may be explained by the poor alloying degree between Pd and Ni which is the same conclusion of [8]. From table (1) also, it can observed for both Pd (200) and Pd (220) that the crystallite size of the ternary Pd40Ni50Sn10/C catalyst has decreased less than those of Pd/C and Pd86Sn14/C to go suggest that the 10% Sn addition still plays a key role in formalizing the catalyst structure even though there are 50% of nickel which is expected to increase the crystallite size as what happened with the two binary PdNi/C catalysts. Since there is only peak noticed for Ni(OH)2, but not NiO, NiOOH, metallic Ni, it may be assumed that Ni, in the major part, exists in amorphous or little crystalline nature. This conclusion goes with [8].

3.2. Electrochemical Evaluation

The cyclic voltammetry (CV) technique is used to evaluate the electrochemical activity of the variable Pd catalysts. Figure 4 shows the CV performance for the prepared Pd catalysts supported on XC-72 Vulcan carbon. The CV voltamograms show that alloying Pd with other elements can enhance the electrochemical activity for ethanol oxidation in alkaline medium clearly. For instance, in case of Pd/C, the ethanol oxidation reaction (EOR) starts at 500 mV (Eonset) and the oxidation current peak is 48 mA, while using any other catalyst, the EOR starts at lower potential, and achieves higher current peak.

Figure 4. CV voltamograms for EOR for Pd catalysts in 1.0M Ethanol+1.0M NaOH (50 mV/s)

Thus, beneficial effects of adding Ni and Sn could be investigated. For example, adding Sn (Pd86Sn14/C) has decreased the Eonset and increased both the ipeak, and ethanol diffusion in the pores of Pd/C. It is useful to consider the conclusion of Z. Liang et al. [5], who explained the CV analysis of Pd/C in 1M KOH + 1M ethanol. The presence of ethanol has led the H2 peak suppression by the dissociative adsorption of ethanol. It results in the formation of (CH3CO)ads species at the catalyst surface. They explained that the (CH3CO)ads have blocked the Pd active sites, but due to the alkaline electrolyte, the OH- species could be generated in lower potentials and facilitate the oxidation of them and thus increasing the current density. By the further OH- formation (in the forward scan), more Pd active sites are liberated for further ethanol oxidation and thus increasing the current density until it comes to the oxidation current peak at which the oxidation of Pd surface starts. By the further oxidation of Pd surface, the active sites of Pd are blocked and thus reducing the activity until the forward scan ends. Starting the inverse scan, the PdO is reduced, thus the active sites are recovered again and the current density increases.

Table 3. The catalytic activity data of the various catalysts

On the contrary of Liang findings [5], in this work there is no oxidation peak noticed in the forward scan, but directly after the maximum current value, the inverse scan starts. It means that the present catalyst surfaces are not oxidized during EOR. This is the case of all the catalysts in this study except Pd60Ni40/C which is oxidized partially and then reduced in the inverse scan. Although adding 14% of Sn has improved the Pd/C activity, adding Ni has a more prominent effect in increasing the activity. For example, adding 40% of Ni (Pd60Ni40/C) achieved even lower onset potential (330 mV) than Pd68Sn14/C for ethanol oxidation together with a noticed oxidation current peak, 83 mA/cm2. This effect could be explained by the bi-functional mechanism that Ni can perform toward the catalytic Pd performance. According to [8], The Ni is capable to generate OHads at lower potentials to oxidize CO-like species into CO2. Furthermore, with increasing the Ni content to 60% (Pd40Ni60/C), the catalytic performance was even developed with Eonset of 320 mV and the maximum current density was 133 mA.cm-2. Thus, according to Figure 4 and Table 3, also the coefficient of diffusion has been sharpened more than Pd/C and Pd86Sn14/C. These promotional effects of Ni could be revised to its capacity to generate OH- in lower potentials and thus help recover the Pd active sites by facilitating the oxidation of intermediate products [8, 6, 10, 11, 13].

Equation (4) is applied to evaluate the ethanol diffusion cofficient D (cm2.s-1).



Where D is diffusion coefficient (cm2.s-1), Ipeak is the peak current from CV graphs (A), n is number of electrons, A=surface area = 0.29 cm2 in this study, µ= scan rate mV/s, and C= solution concentration (mol.cm-3). Thus, according to Figure 4 and Table 3, a catalytic comparison could be made among the five catalysts through the peak current density (ipeak), oxidation onset potential (Eonset) and the coefficient of diffusion (D cm2.s-1), which was calculated according to eq. 4 [18].

P.-Cheng Su et al. [8] have argued that the abundant surface Ni may block the Pd sites but is beneficial for catalyst stability through the bi-functional mechanism. In this work, being used the ethylene glycol as a reducing agent has the same role noticed for NaBH4 which can reduce PdO, and thus OH adsorption on Pd surface leads to the strip away the carbonaceous species and increases the current [8].

Having seen the developing effects of Ni and Sn if added into Pd/C to increase its activity for EOR in alkaline medium, it was sought to sharpen the activity by combining Pd, Ni, and Sn in one ternary catalyst. It was necessary for the Sn proportion to be small (less than 14%), but the Ni one is better to be high (50% or more). So that the nominal proportions of tri-catalyst were 40% Pd, 50% Ni, and Sn 10%. It is clear also for this ternary alloy catalyst that it has achieved the best catalytic activity proven by the least Eonset and the highest current peak (Figure 4). Furthermore, while using this catalyst, it was maintained the highest contact between ethanol and the Pd active sites which is based on the highest diffusion coefficient D (Table 3).

The chronomperometry test results are shown in Figure 5. It is obvious that Pd has zero activity for EOR if applied in acidic medium (red) while if the electrolyte is alkaline (black) the EOR activity is raised considerably. Furthermore, the 14% Sn addition (green) has improved the Pd stability sharply than Pd/C. The catalytic activity improvement continues with the addition of Ni (both 40 and 60%). Yet, while the current density achieved by the Ni–containing catalyst is higher than the rest of catalysts, there is a continuous fluctuation of the values up and down which may be revised the weak alloying degree between Pd and Ni on the catalyst surface.

Unlike the binary catalysts, the time implemented for CA test in case of the tri catalysts was 1 hr (Figure 6). This time elongation was motivated by the conclusion of [8] who have argued that the ternary catalyst has shown low catalytic activity compared to the binary counterparts. However, when they applied long-term CA analysis they noted an obvious enhancement of the activity and they have revised it to the liberation of Pd active sites after intermediate product oxidation. On the other side, this conclusion is reinforced in this work since the catalytic activity of tri-catalyst is lower than the binary ones both in the onset of the analysis and it continues to be lower after long time.

Figure 6. CA test result for the ternary catalyst Pd40Ni50Sn10/C in 1.0M NaOH + 1.0M EtOH (300 mV)

It should be obvious from the CV and CA results that the best catalytic performance would result from the binary catalyst Pd40Ni60/C, which achieved the highest current density in the CA experiments. On the side, the ternary alloy, regardless of having the highest current densities in the CV experiments have very low current in CA analysis.

4. Conclusion

In this work, the impregnation-reduction technique was used to synthesize single, bi-, and tri-catalysts from Pd, Ni, and Sn for ethanol oxidation reaction EOR in alkaline-medium DEFC. Ni has enhanced the catalytic activity highly of Pd for EOR as it could generate OH- species at lower potentials. Yet, the Ni does not have good alloying degree with Pd. On the other side, adding a small amount of Sn will result in a good alloy formation between Pd and Sn, and moreover, will develop the catalytic activity for EOR though less than Ni. Combining the three elements in one tri-catalyst, however, did not result in producing a well-dispersed alloy structure though there are not strange peaks noticed from XRD. Furthermore, the tri-catalyst has shown a slightly less onset potential for EOR than the Pd40Ni60/C which means the catalytic performance is improved by alloying the three elements.


The authors are grateful for the financial support of the agency Brazilian Government entity focused in human resources formation, (CAPES) for this work.


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