Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



Cell Reports Physical Science 4, 101282, February 15, 2023



This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license


Sub-micrometer-thick ion-conducting polymer (ionomer) layers often suffer from poor ionic conductivity at the substrate/catalyst interface. The weak proton conductivity makes the electrochemical reaction at the cathode of proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells sluggish. To address this, here we report on a class of polystyrene-based ionomers having sub-nanometer-sized, sulfonated macrocyclic calix[4]arene-based pendants (PS-calix). In films with thickness comparable to that of ionomer-based binder layers, the conductivity of PS-calix film (∼41 mS/cm) is ∼13 times higher than that of the current state-of-the-art ionomer, Nafion. We observe a similar improvement in proton conductivity when PS-calix interfaces with Pt nanoparticles, demonstrating the potential of PS-calix in catalyst ink. Leveraging a favorable interfacial chemical composition, PS-calix enhances proton conduction at the film-substrate interface, a shortcoming of Nafion. Moreover, the water in PS-calix films diffuses faster than bulk water and the water confined in Nafion films, suggesting an important role played by sub-nanometer-sized calix[4]arene cavities in creating unique water/ion transport pathways.