U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Speeding Up Catalysts for Energy Storage
Published: September 27, 2016
Posted: March 16, 2017

The longer the “arms” of the catalyst (i.e., the greater the number of carbons in the alkyl chains), the faster the catalyst. [Image courtesy Department of Energy’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory]

Researchers develop the fastest synthetic catalyst for hydrogen gas production.

The Science
Chemical bonds in hydrogen gas can be harnessed to power fuel cells or internal combustion engines. Researchers recently reported the fastest synthetic catalyst for hydrogen gas production to date, using a natural bacterial catalyst as inspiration.

The Impact
The findings could lead to the development of optimal strategies for producing environmentally friendly, affordable hydrogen fuel.

Nature uses catalysts to generate fuels to store energy in chemical bonds. Scientists have struggled to design catalysts based on cheap, earth-abundant metals that are as efficient and inexpensive as nature’s catalysts. To address this problem, researchers from the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory turned to a bacterial catalyst for inspiration, developing an inexpensive nickel-based catalyst that produces 45 million hydrogen molecules per second. Surprisingly, the key to speeding up the catalyst for energy storage was slowing it down! As they developed the bioinspired catalyst, the scientists tested their catalysts in reactions by combining the catalyst and acids in different media. They discovered that the synthetic catalyst produced hydrogen faster in a viscous liquid than in a free-flowing liquid, suggesting that by restricting catalyst movement, they might speed up the reaction. Moreover, lengthening the “arms” of the catalyst (i.e., increasing the number of carbons in the alkyl chains) slowed their flopping movement and further speeded up hydrogen gas production. The researchers conducted molecular modeling studies using a high-performance computer at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) to understand how the arms behave in different media. EMSL is a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility. The synthetic catalyst’s unique properties could pave the way for efficient and inexpensive hydrogen production to power fuel cells or internal combustion engines.

BER PM Contact
Paul Bayer, SC-23.1, 301-903-5324

PI Contact
Molly O’Hagan
Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis
Energy Frontier Research Center
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science user facility. Work was performed in part using molecular science computing at EMSL. This material is based on work at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center, funded by the Office of Science Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

A. J. P. Cardenas, B. Ginovska, N. Kumar, J. Hou, S. Raugei, M. L. Helm, A. M. Appel, R. M. Bullock, and M. O’Hagan, “Controlling proton delivery through catalyst structural dynamics.” Angewandte Chemie 55(43),13509 -513 (2016). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201607460. (Reference link)

Related Links
PNNL News Release
EMSL Article

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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