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Transforming agricultural waste into clean, sustainable energy: how biomass can revolutionise the fuel cell industry


Profile Type
Technology offer
POD Reference
Term of Validity
11 January 2024 - 10 January 2025
Company's Country
Type of partnership
Commercial agreement with technical assistanceResearch and development cooperation agreement
Targeted Countries
All countries
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General information

Short Summary
A Spanish university has developed a new low-cost method to obtain high quality electrocatalytic powder materials from agricultural waste. The procedure is simple and easy to scale up, obtaining materials with high durability and selectivity towards the oxygen reduction reaction, making them as very promising candidates to replace current commercial platinum-based catalysts used in fuel cells. Companies interested in acquiring this technology for commercial exploitation are sought.
Full Description
The massive use of fossil fuels has led to an energy crisis that demands the evolution towards an economy based on renewable energies. Although important steps have been taken towards the decarbonisation of the energy system, there are significant limitations to its implementation in sectors such as transport, which is the second largest contributor to CO2 emissions and the main contributor to increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.

The use of batteries in some transport sectors is not technologically feasible, so the development of technology for the generation and consumption of renewable energy through green hydrogen is essential. Moreover, hydrogen is a potential energy carrier because it can be produced from renewable energies, stored for long periods of time and then consumed to produce electricity. In this application, fuel cells play a very important role.

The consumption of green hydrogen via electrochemical fuel cells has a high efficiency compared to combustion. However, this is currently not a reality due to the large amount of platinum (a scarce and expensive noble metal) required in the catalyst (0.2-0.4 mgPtcm-2) for the oxygen reduction reaction at the cathode. In addition, the agglomeration of the metal nanoparticles during use causes a significant reduction of the catalytic activity of the fuel cell with the working time, which shortens its lifetime.

The most developed fuel cells are low-temperature proton exchange polymer membrane fuel cells, although recently basic fuel cells are being developed, as the activity of non-noble metal-based materials is higher in an alkaline medium than in an acid medium.

Carbonaceous materials doped with nitrogen and metal sites have great potential in electrocatalysis, improving the catalytic activity in the oxygen reduction reaction. In addition, bimetallic species are of great interest, as they can show higher activities than the metals of which they are composed due to synergistic effects.

At current, development of carbonaceous materials for electrocatalytic applications using biomass waste as a precursor has a major limitation, as all these processes require catalyst washing processes in acidic media, water or organic solvents. These washing processes have a significant economic and environmental cost, which makes it difficult to scale them up industrially. In addition, more than one high temperature heat treatment is usually applied during their manufacture, which involves a significant energy and economic cost.

Therefore, none of the strategies known to date have solved the problem of obtaining low-cost catalysts based on agricultural residues (biomass) with sufficient catalytic activity and durability to replace existing platinum catalysts in the oxygen reduction reaction, and whose synthesis can be simply extended on an industrial scale.

In order to solve the problems described above, a Spanish university has developed a new method for the synthesis of low-cost carbonaceous materials with excellent electrocatalytic properties using agricultural waste (biomass) for use them in fuel cells in an alkaline medium.

The starting biomass can be any agricultural waste, for example: almond shells, olive pits, peach pits, wood, sawdust, cocoa shells, shellfish industry waste, etc.

The electrocatalysts obtained by this procedure have specific surface areas greater than 500 m2/g.

The synthesis temperature has a very significant impact on the catalytic activity and selectivity of the carbonaceous compounds obtained, so that, by controlling this variable, catalytic activity values comparable to commercial electrocatalysts based on platinum nanoparticles can be achieved.

This invention is part of the energy and circular economy sectors. Specifically, it focuses on the use of agricultural waste (biomass) to obtain high-performance carbonaceous materials (electrocatalysts) for industries that manufacture or use fuel cells.
Advantages and Innovations
The main advantages of this novel procedure are listed below:
1) It is easier and it has fewer steps than currently used procedures.
2) It does not require special equipment: the equipment used is commercially available and affordable for any laboratory or industry.
3) Platinum group metals and conventional activating agents are not used.
4) The process can be easily scaled up to industrial level.
5) It is sustainable and environmentally friendly.
6) The synthesis method is versatile and it can be applied to other electrochemical reactions of interest by modifying the metallic precursor or by introducing other metals in the form of alloys.
7) The synthesis method has a high yield.

The main innovation concerns the use of agricultural waste (biomass) to obtain low-cost carbonaceous materials with excellent electrocatalytic properties to replace current commercial platinum-based catalysts in the oxygen reduction reaction in an alkaline medium in fuel cells.

Furthermore, the present invention differs from current synthesis methods in two fundamental aspects:
1) Conventional activating agents involving subsequent washing steps are not employed. Thus, this invention provides a simple method of synthesis.
2) The chemical activation of the carbonaceous precursor and the incorporation of the active sites is carried out during the same thermal treatment, using just the right amount of the metal precursors and nitrogen.

On the other hand, in contrast to this invention, current synthesis methods require several washing steps, which increases the price of catalysts and contributes to a deterioration of the environment.

Through the appropriate selection of metal precursors (e.g. metals such as iron), nitrogen and appropriate biomass residues, catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction in alkaline media can be obtained with similar features to commercial platinum catalysts.
Stage of Development
Lab tested
Sustainable Development Goals
Not relevant

Partner Sought

Expected Role of a Partner
Acquiring this technology for its commercial exploitation through patent licensing agreements or development of new applications.

- Company profile sought: Manufacturers of catalysts and electrocatalysts for fuel cells.
- Sectors of interest: Energy, transport, chemical industry, pharmaceutical industry and waste management.
Type and Size of Partner
SME 11-49SME <=10SME 50 - 249Big company
Type of partnership
Commercial agreement with technical assistanceResearch and development cooperation agreement

Call details

Coordinator required


Technology keywords
04005012 - Waste to energy - other02007021 - Carbon nanotubes04002001 - Fuel cells004002001 - Fuel cell, hydrogen production
Market keywords
06010003 - Energy for Industry06011 - Energy for Transport006005007 - Other alternative energy (including nuclear energy)
Targeted countries
All countries