In 2001, while Frank J. DiSalvo and Héctor D. Abruña, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, were discussing the research of Abruña’s group on catalysts for fuel cells, DiSalvo made a recommendation that would change the course of both their research efforts and lead to the creation of the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute. Sean Smith, a doctoral candidate working with Abruña, had made a surprisingly efficient new catalyst for fuel cell electrodes by depositing atoms of bismuth on the surface of the platinum. DiSalvo suggested trying an ordered-intermetallic compound made from platinum and bismuth (PtBi) instead. The initial test results of the new catalyst with formic acid were so promising that both research groups, Abruña’s and DiSalvo’s, worked intently at discovering new intermetallic catalysts.
The catalyst on fuel cell electrodes is where electricity is created as a fuel, such as hydrogen or methanol, and then is oxidized electrochemically.