Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) will receive US$1.98 million from the Department of Energy over the next three years to emulate the function of natural enzymes to prepare new, inexpensive electrocatalytic materials.
Although this is a basic research project, an associated practical goal is the development of new materials that make hydrogen fuel cells more economically feasible. Fuel cells currently use platinum as a catalytic material.
We seek to prepare new metal complexes based on abundant, inexpensive metals such as iron, manganese and molybdenum.—Dan DuBois, PNNL
We hope [this project] will provide new knowledge that will be pertinent to the production of hydrogen or oxidation of hydrogen in fuel cells.—Morris Bullock, PNNL
Bullock and DuBois are co-leaders of the project and are members of the Molecular Interactions and Transformations group and the Institute for Interfacial Catalysis at PNNL.
To search for electrocatalyst alternatives to platinum, the team will be guided by natural systems like those in species of bacteria and algae that enlist hydrogenase enzymes in energy production. Bullock and colleagues hope to replicate the function but not the exact structure of the natural enzymes.
Recent structural studies of hydrogenase enzymes from these microorganisms have revealed that sites where electrocatalysis takes place contain nuclei made up of iron-iron or nickel-iron complexes. These enzymes’ high catalytic activity suggests that properly designed synthetic catalysts based on inexpensive metals can be used in fuel cells for this important energy-conversion reaction in place of platinum.
The PNNL award is among 13 basic research projects funded by US$11.2 million over the next three years by the Basic Energy Sciences program of the DOE Office of Science. The research aims to overcome challenges associated with the production, storage and use of hydrogen.