Using only inexpensive earth-abundant raw materials, a team from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have created a scalable photocatalyst that can convert ammonia into hydrogen fuel. The research is published in Science.
We show that plasmonic photocatalysis can transform a thermally unreactive, earth-abundant transition metal into a catalytically active site under illumination. Fe active sites in a Cu-Fe antenna-reactor complex achieve efficiencies very similar to Ru for the photocatalytic decomposition of ammonia under ultrafast pulsed illumination. When illuminated with light-emitting diodes rather than lasers, the photocatalytic efficiencies remain comparable, even when the scale of reaction increases by nearly three orders of magnitude. This result demonstrates the potential for highly efficient, electrically driven production of hydrogen from an ammonia carrier with earth-abundant transition metals.—Yuan et al.
The research follows government and industry investment to create infrastructure and markets for carbon-free liquid ammonia fuel that will not contribute to greenhouse warming. Liquid ammonia is easy to transport and packs a lot of energy, with one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms per molecule. The new catalyst breaks those molecules into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas, the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike traditional catalysts, it doesn’t require heat; it harvests energy from light.
Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts. This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.—co-author Naomi Halas
This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants.—Peter Nordlander, co-author
The best thermocatalysts are made from platinum and related precious metals such as palladium, rhodium and ruthenium. Halas and Nordlander spent years developing light-activated, or plasmonic, metal nanoparticles. The best of these are also typically made with precious metals like silver and gold.
Following their 2011 discovery of plasmonic particles that give off short-lived, high-energy electrons called “hot carriers,” they discovered in 2016 that hot-carrier generators could be married with catalytic particles to produce hybrid “antenna-reactors,” where one part harvested energy from light and the other part used the energy to drive chemical reactions with surgical precision.
A reaction cell (left) and the photocatalytic platform (right) used on tests of copper-iron plasmonic photocatalysts for hydrogen production from ammonia at Syzygy Plasmonics in Houston. All reaction energy for the catalysis came from LEDs that produced light with a wavelength of 470 nanometers. Courtesy of Syzygy Plasmonics, Inc.
Halas, Nordlander, their students and collaborators have worked for years to find non-precious metal alternatives for both the energy-harvesting and reaction-speeding halves of antenna reactors. The new study is a culmination of that work. In it, Halas, Nordlander, Rice alumnus Hossein Robatjazi, Princeton engineer and physical chemist Emily Carter, and others show that antenna-reactor particles made of copper and iron are highly efficient at converting ammonia. The copper, energy-harvesting piece of the particles captures energy from visible light.
In the absence of light, the copper-iron catalyst exhibited about 300 times lower reactivity than copper-ruthenium catalysts, which is not surprising given that ruthenium is a better thermocatalyst for this reaction. Under illumination, the copper-iron showed efficiencies and reactivities that were similar to and comparable with those of copper-ruthenium.—Hossein Robatjazi, chief scientist at Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics
Syzygy has licensed Rice’s antenna-reactor technology, and the study included scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. In laboratory tests at Rice, the copper-iron catalysts had been illuminated with lasers. The Syzygy tests showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than the lab setup.
Halas and Nordlander are Syzygy co-founders and hold an equity stake in the company.
The research was supported by the Welch Foundation (C-1220, C-1222), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-15-1-0022), Syzygy Plasmonics, the Department of Defense and Princeton University.
Yigao Yuan, Linan Zhou, Hossein Robatjazi, Junwei Lucas Bao, Jingyi Zhou, Aaron Bayles, Lin Yuan, Minghe Lou, Minhan Lou, Suman Khatiwada, Emily A. Carter, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas (2022) “Earth-abundant photocatalyst for H2 generation from NH3 with light-emitting diode illumination” Science doi: 10.1126/science.abn5636