Normally Oxygen is fairly tight bound to the hydrogen in water. If it can be easily removed, it has potential benefits for certain energy and fuel systems. A team of researchers at MIT has found one of the most effective catalysts ever discovered for splitting oxygen atoms from water molecules — a key reaction for advanced energy storage systems, including electrolyzers, to produce hydrogen fuel and rechargeable batteries. This new catalyst liberates oxygen at more than 10 times the rate of the best previously known catalyst of its type.
The new compound, composed of cobalt, iron and oxygen with other metals, splits oxygen from water (called the Oxygen Evolution Reaction, or OER) at a rate at least an order of magnitude higher than the compound currently considered the gold standard for such reactions, the team says. The compound’s high level of activity was predicted from a systematic experimental study that looked at the catalytic activity of 10 known compounds.
The team, which includes materials science and engineering graduate student Jin Suntivich, mechanical engineering graduate student Kevin J. May and professor Yang Shao-Horn, published their results in Science on Oct. 28.
The scientists found that reactivity depended on a specific characteristic: the configuration of the outermost electron of transition metal ions. They were able to use this information to predict the high reactivity of the new compound — which they then confirmed in lab tests.
“We not only identified a fundamental principle that governs the OER activity of different compounds, but also we actually found this new compound” based on that principle, says Shao-Horn.
Many other groups have been searching for more efficient catalysts to speed the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen. This reaction is key to the production of hydrogen as a fuel to be used in cars; the operation of some rechargeable batteries, including zinc-air batteries; and to generate electricity in devices called fuel cells. Two catalysts are needed for such a reaction — one that liberates the hydrogen atoms, and another for the oxygen atoms — but the oxygen reaction has been the limiting factor in such systems.
Fuel cells come in many varieties; however, they all work in the same general manner. They are made up of three segments which are sandwiched together: the anode, the electrolyte, and the cathode. Two chemical reactions occur at the interfaces of the three different segments. The net result of the two reactions is that fuel is consumed, water or carbon dioxide is created, and an electric current is created, which can be used to power electrical devices, normally referred to as the load.
At the anode a catalyst oxidizes the fuel, usually hydrogen, turning the fuel into a positively charged ion and a negatively charged electron. The electrolyte is a substance specifically designed so ions can pass through it, but the electrons cannot. The freed electrons travel through a wire creating the electric current. The ions travel through the electrolyte to the cathode. Once reaching the cathode, the ions are reunited with the electrons and the two react with a third chemical, usually oxygen, to create water or carbon dioxide.
In addition, even though they have already found the highest rate of activity yet seen, they plan to continue searching for even more efficient catalyst materials. “It’s our belief that there may be others with even higher activity,” Shao-Horn says.
Jens Norskov, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University and director of the Suncat Center for Interface Science and Catalysis there, who was not involved in this work, says, “I find this an extremely interesting rational design approach to finding new catalysts for a very important and demanding problem.”
Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.