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  1. The urgent need to address the high-cost issue of proton-exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) technologies, particularly for transportation applications, drives the development of simultaneously highly active and durable platinum group metal-free (PGM-free) catalysts and electrodes. The past decade has witnessed remarkable progress in exploring PGM-free cathode catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) to overcome sluggish kinetics and catalyst instability in acids. Among others, scientists have identified the newly emerging atomically dispersed transition metal (M: Fe, Co, or/and Mn) and nitrogen co-doped carbon (M–N–C) catalysts as the most promising alternative to PGM catalysts. Here, we provide a comprehensive review of significant breakthroughs, remaining challenges, and perspectives regarding the M–N–C catalysts in terms of catalyst activity, stability, and membrane electrode assembly (MEA) performance. A variety of novel synthetic strategies demonstrated effectiveness in improving intrinsic activity, increasing active site density, and attaining optimal porous structures of catalysts. Rationally designing and engineering the coordination environment of single metal MN x sites and their local structures are crucial for enhancing intrinsic activity. Increasing the site density relies on the innovative strategies of restricting the migration and agglomeration of single metal sites into metallic clusters. Relevant understandings provide the correlations among the nature of activemore »sites, nanostructures, and catalytic activity of M–N–C catalysts at the atomic scale through a combination of experimentation and theory. Current knowledge of the transferring catalytic properties of M–N–C catalysts to MEA performance is limited. Rationally designing morphologic features of M–N–C catalysts play a vital role in boosting electrode performance through exposing more accessible active sites, realizing uniform ionomer distribution, and facilitating mass/proton transports. We outline future research directions concerning the comprehensive evaluation of M–N–C catalysts in MEAs. The most considerable challenge of current M–N–C catalysts is the unsatisfied stability and rapid performance degradation in MEAs. Therefore, we further discuss practical methods and strategies to mitigate catalyst and electrode degradation, which is fundamentally essential to make M–N–C catalysts viable in PEMFC technologies.« less
  2. Proton-exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) and direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) are promising power sources from portable electronic devices to vehicles. The high-cost issue of these low-temperature fuel cells can be primarily addressed by using platinum-group metal (PGM)-free oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) catalysts, in particular atomically dispersed metal–nitrogen–carbon (M–N–C, M = Fe, Co, Mn). Furthermore, a significant advantage of M–N–C catalysts is their superior methanol tolerance over Pt, which can mitigate the methanol cross-over effect and offer great potential of using a higher concentration of methanol in DMFCs. Here, we investigated the ORR catalytic properties of M–N–C catalysts in methanol-containing acidic electrolytes via experiments and density functional theory (DFT) calculations. FeN 4 sites demonstrated the highest methanol tolerance ability when compared to metal-free pyridinic N, CoN 4 , and MnN 4 active sites. The methanol adsorption on MN 4 sites is even strengthened when electrode potentials are applied during the ORR. The negative influence of methanol adsorption becomes significant for methanol concentrations higher than 2.0 M. However, the methanol adsorption does not affect the 4e − ORR pathway or chemically destroy the FeN 4 sites. The understanding of the methanol-induced ORR activity loss guides the design of promising M–N–C cathodemore »catalyst in DMFCs. Accordingly, we developed a dual-metal site Fe/Co–N–C catalyst through a combined chemical-doping and adsorption strategy. Instead of generating a possible synergistic effect, the introduced Co atoms in the first doping step act as “scissors” for Zn removal in metal–organic frameworks (MOFs), which is crucial for modifying the porosity of the catalyst and providing more defects for stabilizing the active FeN 4 sites generated in the second adsorption step. The Fe/Co–N–C catalyst significantly improved the ORR catalytic activity and delivered remarkably enhanced peak power densities ( i.e. , 502 and 135 mW cm −2 ) under H 2 –air and methanol–air conditions, respectively, representing the best performance for both types of fuel cells. Notably, the fundamental understanding of methanol tolerance, along with the encouraging DMFC performance, will open an avenue for the potential application of atomically dispersed M–N–C catalysts in other direct alcohol or ammonia fuel cells.« less