Journal of Applied Electrochemistry

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 119–133 | Cite as

Promoted activity of nitrogen-doped activated carbon as a highly efficient oxygen reduction catalyst in microbial fuel cells

  • Yuan LiuEmail author
  • Zhi-Mei Liu
Research Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Fuel cells


Despite the wide application of activated carbon (AC) as cathode electrocatalyst in microbial fuel cell (MFC), the enhancement of its catalytic activity is crucial to reduce its high loading on air-cathode. Herein, we synthesize nitrogen-doped activated carbon (NAC) by pyrolyzing phthalocyanine (Pc) adsorbed on AC to develop an efficient oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) electrocatalyst. The optimized mass ratio of AC to Pc improves the crystalline structure and porous structure of the NAC. Elemental analysis indicates that this material contains appropriate content of pyrrolic and pyridinic types of nitrogen and oxygen species. The NAC shows an ORR onset potential of 0.468 V (vs. Standard hydrogen electrode), an electron transfer number of 3.90, and high electrochemically accessible surface area, thereby illustrating enhanced electrocatalytic activity in the neutral medium relative to alkali-treated activated carbon (b-AC) and commercial platinum catalyst. Owing to the high activity, a small amount of NAC with a loading of 15 mg cm− 2 on the air-cathode of MFC is sufficient to achieve the maximum power density of 1026.07 ± 10.83 mW m− 2, which is higher than that of b-AC and comparable to platinum catalyst. The reduced loading of NAC indicates that the material can be used as cathode electrocatalyst for the ongoing effort to scale up MFC in the future.

Graphical abstract


Activated carbon Phthalocyanine Nitrogen-doping Microbial fuel cell Oxygen reduction reaction 



Activated carbon






Coulombic efficiency


Chemical oxygen demand


Cyclic voltammetry


Electrochemical accessible surface area


Linear sweep voltammetry


Microbial fuel cell


Maximum power density


Nitrogen-doped activated carbon


Open-circuit voltage


Oxygen reduction reaction


Phosphate-buffered saline




Platinum group metals


Rotating ring-disk electrode


Scanning electron microscopy


Standard hydrogen electrode


X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy


X-ray diffraction


Yield percentage of H2O2 (%)


Exchange current density (mA cm− 2)


Electron transfer number


Overpotential (mV)



This work was supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 51578526), the Chongqing Research Program of Basic Research and Frontier Technology (No. cstc2015jcyjBX0063), and by Natural Science Foundation of Chongqing (No. cstc2018jcyjAX0327), and the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of Chinese Academy of Sciences (No. 2016341).

Supplementary material

10800_2018_1263_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1169 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Reservoir Aquatic EnvironmentChinese Academy of SciencesChongqingChina
  2. 2.Chongqing Institute of Green and Intelligent TechnologyChinese Academy of SciencesChongqingChina

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