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September 2011

Screaming Fast

Nickel catalyst breaks speed records for producing hydrogen

Jenny Yang

The record-breaking catalyst stuffs electrons — the backbone of electricity, seen here as yellow balls or yellow halos — into chemical bonds between hydrogen atoms (H) stolen from water. It uses inexpensive nickel (Ni) to do so, instead of the more common and expensive platinum.

Electrocatalysts that are efficient, fast and affordable at generating chemical fuels are a critical element for a renewable energy economy. Scientists at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis have reported an important discovery towards this goal, a molecular nickel-based catalyst that produces hydrogen at over 100,000 times a second.

The current fossil-fuel-based energy economy has high environmental and national security costs. Moving towards renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, can alleviate these problems, but their intermittent nature results in an unpredictable energy supply. For this reason, renewable energy technologies must be coupled with improved methods of energy storage. Chemical fuels such as hydrogen are an ideal solution because of their high energy densities. Catalysts that are cheap, efficient and fast are necessary to make the generation and utilization of chemical fuels economical.

Hydrogen is a candidate for use as a chemical fuel and can serve as a feedstock to generate other fuels. However, the most efficient method of generating hydrogen from non-fossil fuel sources requires the use of platinum, a precious metal more expensive than gold. Nature also uses hydrogen as an energy carrier, and performs the necessary catalytic reactions efficiently and quickly with enzymes composed of abundant iron and nickel. One of these enzymes, [FeFe] hydrogenase, integrates a chemical group near the center or active site that facilitates proton movement.

The new catalyst from the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis incorporates some of the elements that make [FeFe] hydrogenase a successful catalyst. Although not as efficient as the enzyme, it catalyzes the production of hydrogen 10 times faster, exceeding the rate of any known molecular catalyst for hydrogen production. The insights gained from this catalyst are contributing to continued research into more efficient catalysts that operate at high rates.

More Information

Helm ML, MP Stewart, RM Bullock, M Rakowski DuBois, and DL DuBois. 2011. "A Synthetic Nickel Electrocatalyst with a Turnover Frequency Above 100,000 s-1 for H2 Production." Science 333(6044), 863-866. DOI :10.1126/science.1205864.

Acknowledgments

This research was supported as part of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

About the author(s):

  • Jenny Yang is a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory working in the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy. She did her postdoctoral work at the same institution (PNNL) for Daniel DuBois. She received her B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007, where she worked with Professor Daniel Nocera. Her research interests include synthetic inorganic chemistry and small molecule catalysis relevant to the generation and utilization of chemical fuels.

Catalyst Faster than a Speeding Enzyme

Nickel catalyst breaks Mother Nature’s record for producing hydrogen

The record-breaking catalyst stuffs electrons — the backbone of electricity, seen here as yellow balls or yellow halos — into chemical bonds between hydrogen atoms (H) stolen from water. It uses inexpensive nickel (Ni) to do so, instead of the more common and expensive platinum.

Fast, affordable catalysts that turn sunlight into hydrogen fuels could change the world’s energy landscape. Plants and microbes quickly turn light into fuel using enzymes. These enzymes are natural catalysts based on nickel or other abundant metals. Researchers around the world are studying natural catalysts and applying their findings to create efficient, affordable catalysts with the needed traits. Recently, a team designed a nature-inspired nickel-based catalyst that produces 100,000 hydrogen molecules a second. This rate is faster than any known synthetic hydrogen-producing catalyst. In addition, the catalyst is faster than some natural catalysts. Creating the material sheds new light on hydrogen production and could help revolutionize the energy landscape. The Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, conducted this study.

More Information

Helm ML, MP Stewart, RM Bullock, M Rakowski DuBois, and DL DuBois. 2011. "A Synthetic Nickel Electrocatalyst with a Turnover Frequency Above 100,000 s-1 for H2 Production." Science 333(6044), 863-866. DOI :10.1126/science.1205864.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.