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Researchers Model Hydrogenase Active Sites to Create Synthetic Catalyst for Hydrogen Production

Chemists at the University of Illinois have described a catalyst that acts like nature’s most pervasive hydrogen processor by creating a model of the active site found in iron-iron hydrogenase and nickel-iron hydrogenase. The researchers describe their work in a paper published online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Nature uses cheap and plentiful building blocks—iron, nickel and sulfur—to achieve the catalytic performance seen in rare and expensive metals. In particular, the two hydrogenases function as hydrogen processors, much like platinum.

Nature relies on a very elaborate architecture to support its own ‘hydrogen economy’. We cracked that design by generating mock-ups of the catalytic site to include the substrate hydrogen atom.

—Thomas B. Rauchfuss, a professor of chemistry and corresponding author of the paper

The researchers’ model of the nickel-iron complex is the first to include a bridging hydride ligand, an essential component of the catalyst.

Our results should encourage the development of a host of biomimetic hydrides, leading to new mechanistic insights relevant to Nature’s most pervasive catalysts for processing hydrogen.Barton et al. (2009)


  • Bryan E. Barton, C. Matthew Whaley, Thomas B. Rauchfuss and Danielle L. Gray (2009) Nickel-Iron Dithiolato Hydrides Relevant to the [NiFe]-Hydrogenase Active Site. J. Am. Chem. Soc., , Article ASAP doi: 10.1021/ja902570u


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