Challenges and constraints of using oxygen cathodes in microbial fuel cells

Feng Zhao, Falk Harnisch, Uwe Schröder, Fritz Scholz, Peter Bogdanoff, Iris Herrmann
Environmental Science & Technology 2006 September 1, 40 (17): 5193-9
The performance of oxygen reduction catalysts (platinum, pyrolyzed iron(ll) phthalocyanine (pyr-FePc) and cobalt tetramethoxyphenylporphyrin (pyr-CoTMPP)) is discussed in light of their application in microbial fuel cells. It is demonstrated that the physical and chemical environment in microbial fuel cells severely affects the thermodynamics and the kinetics of the electrocatalytic oxygen reduction. The neutral pH in combination with low buffer capacities and low ionic concentrations strongly affect the cathode performance and limit the fuel cell power output. Thus, the limiting current density in galvanodyanamic polarization experiments decreases from 1.5 mA cm(-2) to 0.6 mA cm(-2) (pH 3.3, E(cathode) = 0 V) when the buffer concentration is decreased from 500 to 50 mM. The cathode limitations are superposed by the increasing internal resistance of the MFC that substantially contributes to the decrease of power output. For example, the maximum power output of a model MFC decreased by 35%, from 2.3 to 1.5 mW, whereas the difference between the electrode potentials (deltaE = E(anode) - E(cathode)) decreased only by 10%. The increase of the catalyst load of pyr-FePc from 0.25 to 2 mg cm(-2) increased the cathodic current density from 0.4 to 0.97 mA cm(-2) (pH 7, 50 mM phosphate buffer). The increase of the load of such inexpensive catalyst thus represents a suitable means to improve the cathode performance in microbial fuel cells. Due to the low concentration of protons in MFCs in comparison to relatively high alkali cation levels (ratio C(Na+,K+)/C(H+) = 5 x E5 in pH 7, 50 mM phosphate buffer) the transfer of alkali ions through the proton exchange membrane plays a major role in the charge-balancing ion flux from the anodic into the cathodic compartment. This leads to the formation of pH gradients between the anode and the cathode compartment.

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