Using reed waste for sustainable batteries

Montreal researchers hope to use the CLS to help create bio-based, high-performance fuel cells and metal-air batteries, which could be used in electric cars.

By Erin Matthews

A bank of a lake covered in reeds at sunset.

With the changing climate, researchers are focusing on finding sustainable alternatives to conventional fuel cells and battery designs.

Traditional catalysts used in vehicles contribute to increasing carbon dioxide emissions and mining for materials used in their design has a negative impact on the environment.

Prof. Shuhui Sun, a researcher from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, and his team used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to investigate an Iron-Nitrogen-Carbon catalyst using reed waste.

They hope to use the bio-based materials to create high-performance fuel cells and metal-air batteries, which could be used in electric cars.

"An efficient oxygen electrocatalyst is extremely important for the development of high-performance electrochemical energy conversion and storage devices. Currently, the rare and expensive Pt-based catalysts are commonly used in these devices. Therefore, developing highly efficient and low-cost non-precious metal (e.g., Fe-based) catalysts to facilitate a sluggish cathodic oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is a key issue for metal air batteries and fuel cells," said Qilang Wei, the first author of the paper.

Sun’s team recently published a new paper in Nano Energy that moves their research into the landscape of metal-free catalysts for batteries.

“In addition to iron-based catalysts, metal-free catalysts are another type of very promising Pt-free catalyst for ORR in fuel cells and batteries,” said Wei.

Reeds are hardy, invasive plants found in wetlands that can have negative effects on native plant populations. Harvesting the reeds keeps them from overgrowing and outcompeting other plants, which allows for a more diverse ecosystem. Using reed waste in a metal-free design would also remove the need for traditional platinum catalysts and mining for this rare and expensive material.

The reed waste gives the researchers silicon and carbon that, when dosed with nitrogen, can create a high-performance catalyst with oxygen reduction potential. Indeed, the natural silicon found in the reeds produced an even better reaction activity than its traditional counterpart. The CLS was critical in studying the roles these two elements had in increasing the critical ORR activity.

"Thanks to the strong ability of the Canadian Light Source we can analyze both the K-edge of the Nitrogen and Silicon to study their roles in the Silicon-Nitrogen-Carbon structure and based on it, our collaborator, Prof. Francois Vidal’s team at INRS, used the density functional theory (DFT) to illustrate the active sites of this novel catalyst."

Wei, Qiliang, Mohamed Cherif, Gaixia Zhang, Ali Almesrati, Jiatang Chen, Mingjie Wu, Nathanael Komba et al. "Transforming reed waste into a highly active metal-free catalyst for oxygen reduction reaction." Nano Energy (2019).


For more information, contact:

Victoria Schramm
Communications Coordinator
Canadian Light Source