To make fuel cells more economical, engineers want a fast and efficient iron-based molecule that splits hydrogen gas to make electricity.
Online Feb. 17 at Nature Chemistry, researchers report such a catalyst. It is the first iron-based catalyst that converts hydrogen directly to electricity. The result moves chemists and engineers one step closer to widely affordable fuel cells.
“A drawback with today’s fuel cells is that the platinum they use is more than a thousand times more expensive than iron,” said chemist R. Morris Bullock, who leads the research at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
His team at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis has been developing catalysts that use cheaper metals such as nickel and iron. The one they report here can split hydrogen as fast as two molecules per second with an efficiency approaching those of commercial catalysts. The center is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the DOE Office of Science across the nation in 2009 to accelerate basic research in energy.
Fuel cells generate electricity out of a chemical fuel, usually hydrogen. The bond within a hydrogen molecule stores electricity, where two electrons connect two hydrogen atoms like a barbell.
Fuel cells use a platinum catalyst — essentially a chunk of metal — to crack a hydrogen molecule open like an egg: The electron whites run out and form a current that is electricity. Because platinum’s chemical nature gives it the ability to do this, chemists can’t simply replace the expensive metal with the cheaper iron or nickel. However, a molecule that exists in nature called a hydrogenase (high-dra-jin-ace) uses iron to split hydrogen.
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