Achilles' heel of Iron-Based Catalysts During Oxygen Reduction in Acidic Medium

Fuel cells efficiently convert chemical into electric energy, with promising application for clean transportation. In proton-exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), rare platinum metal catalyzes today the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) while iron(cobalt)-nitrogen-carbon materials (Fe(Co)-N-C) are a promising alternative. Their active sites can be classified as atomically dispersed metal-ions coordinated to nitrogen atoms (MeNxCy moieties) or nitrogen functionalities (possibly influenced by sub-surface metallic particles). While their durability is a recognized challenge, its rational improvement is impeded by insufficient understanding of operando degradation mechanisms. Here, we show that FeNxCy moieties in a representative Fe-N-C catalyst are structurally stable but electrochemically unstable when exposed in acidic medium to H2O2, the main ORR byproduct. We reveal that exposure to H2O2 leaves iron-based catalytic sites untouched but decreases their turnover frequency (TOF) via oxidation of the carbon surface, leading to weakened O2 binding on iron-based sites. Their TOF is recovered upon electrochemical reduction of the carbon surface, demonstrating the proposed deactivation mechanism. Our results reveal a hitherto unsuspected deactivation mechanism during ORR in acidic medium. This study identifies the N-doped carbon surface as Achilles' heel during ORR catalysis in PEMFCs. Observed in acidic but not in alkaline electrolyte, these insights suggest that durable iron-nitrogen-carbon catalysts are within reach for PEMFCs if rational strategies minimizing the amount of H2O2 or reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced during ORR are developed.