Influence of Chemical and Physical Properties of Activated Carbon Powders on Oxygen Reduction and Microbial Fuel Cell Performance

Valerie J. Watson, Cesar Nieto Delgado, Bruce E. Logan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


Commercially available activated carbon (AC) powders made from different precursor materials (coal, peat, coconut shell, hardwood, and phenolic resin) were electrochemically evaluated as oxygen reduction catalysts and tested as cathode catalysts in microbial fuel cells (MFCs). AC powders were characterized in terms of surface chemistry and porosity, and their kinetic activities were compared to carbon black and platinum catalysts in rotating disk electrode (RDE) tests. Cathodes using the coal-derived AC had the highest power densities in MFCs (1620 ± 10 mW m-2). Peat-based AC performed similarly in MFC tests (1610 ± 100 mW m-2) and had the best catalyst performance, with an onset potential of Eonset = 0.17 V, and n = 3.6 electrons used for oxygen reduction. Hardwood based AC had the highest number of acidic surface functional groups and the poorest performance in MFC and catalysis tests (630 ± 10 mW m-2, Eonset = -0.01 V, n = 2.1). There was an inverse relationship between onset potential and quantity of strong acid (pKa < 8) functional groups, and a larger fraction of microporosity was negatively correlated with power production in MFCs. Surface area alone was a poor predictor of catalyst performance, and a high quantity of acidic surface functional groups was determined to be detrimental to oxygen reduction and cathode performance. © 2013 American Chemical Society.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6704-6710
Number of pages7
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 3 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01
Acknowledged KAUST grant number(s): KUS-I1-003-13
Acknowledgements: The authors thank Vince Bojan for assistance with XPS analysis. The authors acknowledge support from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) by Award KUS-I1-003-13 and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP).
This publication acknowledges KAUST support, but has no KAUST affiliated authors.


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