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Physics Copying Bacteria Magic Could Yield Cheap Hydrogen Catalyst

Copying Bacteria Magic Could Yield Cheap Hydrogen Catalyst

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First Posted: Feb 01, 2013 12:03 PM EST

To drive down the cost of making hydrogen, and make it a competitive fuel, researchers are trying to find catalysts that are cheap and enduring enough for the job. Prince­ton chem­istry pro­fes­sor Annabella Sel­l­oni and her team take inspi­ra­tion from bac­te­ria that make hydro­gen from water, using enzymes called di-iron hydro­ge­nases

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To fig­ure out how to incor­po­rate the magic of these enzymes into the design of prac­ti­cal syn­thetic cat­a­lysts, that humans can use to pro­duce hydro­gen from water, they used com­puter mod­els. A problem was that the cat­a­lysts designed at first were "suicidal", because they could not survive the oxy­gen that they produced necessarily dur­ing the reac­tion, splitting water in its two components.

By modifying the cat­a­lyst to improve the sta­bil­ity of the struc­ture in water, the researchers found that they had also cre­ated a cat­a­lyst that is tol­er­ant to oxy­gen with­out sac­ri­fic­ing effi­ciency.

The arti­fi­cial cat­a­lyst could also be made from abun­dant and cheap com­po­nents, such as iron, indi­cat­ing that the cat­a­lyst could be a cost-effective way of pro­duc­ing hydrogen - that is, if actual experiments turn out successful.

Because until this point, the researchers at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity  con­ducted their research in sil­ico - that is, using com­puter mod­el­ing. The goal is to learn enough about how these cat­a­lysts work to some­day cre­ate work­ing cat­a­lysts that can make vast quan­ti­ties of inex­pen­sive hydro­gen for use in vehi­cles and elec­tric­ity production.

iron-based catalyst for producing hydrogen
(Photo : Patrick H.-L. Sit et al./PNAS)
Bio-inspired iron-based catalyst for producing hydrogen. Key atoms and groups are indicated.

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