Hydrogen Gas Separated Using Iron Catalyst To Produce Electricity

Iron catalyst splits hydrogen gas to produce electricity

7:26 AM, 18th February 2013
Iron Catalyst Splits Hydrogen Gas To produce Electricity
Burning hydrogen in a fuel cell generates an electrical current. A new iron-based catalyst might help make those fuel cells less expensive.

 

RICHLAND, US: To make fuel cells more economical, engineers want a fast and efficient iron-based molecule that splits hydrogen gas to make electricity. 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 R Morris Bullock, Chemist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Bullock’s team has been developing catalysts that use cheaper metals such as nickel and iron that can split hydrogen as fast as two molecules per second with an efficiency approaching those of commercial catalysts. 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. Chemists can’t simply replace the expensive metal with the cheaper iron or nickel. However, a molecule that exists in nature called a hydrogenase uses iron to split hydrogen.

Bullock and Tianbiao ‘Leo’ Liu & Dan DuBois, have taken inspiration for their iron-wielding catalyst from a hydrogenase. First Liu created several potential molecules for the team to test. Then, with the best-working molecule up to that point, they determined and tweaked the shape and the internal electronic forces to make additional improvements.

One of the tricks they needed the catalyst to do was to split hydrogen atoms into all of their parts. If a hydrogen atom is an egg, the positively charged proton that serves as the nucleus of the atom would be the yolk. And the electron, which orbits around the proton in a cloud, would be the white. The catalyst moves both the proton-yolks and electron-whites around in a controlled series of steps, sending the protons in one direction and the electrons to an electrode, where the electricity can be used to power things.

To do this, they need to split hydrogen molecules unevenly in an early step of the process. One hydrogen molecule is made up of two protons and two electrons, but the team needed the catalyst to tug away one proton first and send it away, where it is caught by a kind of molecule called a proton acceptor. In a real fuel cell, the acceptor would be oxygen.

Once the first proton with its electron-wooing force is gone, the electrode easily plucks off the first electron. Then another proton and electron are similarly removed, with both of the electrons being shuttled off to the electrode.

With their design down, the team measured how fast the catalyst split molecular hydrogen. In addition, they determined its overpotential, which is a measure of how efficient the catalyst is. Now the team is figuring out the slow steps so they can make them faster, as well as determining the best conditions under which this catalyst performs.

© Pacific Northwest National Laboratory News

 

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