The science of creating catalysts for energy storage

March 19, 2014

( —In Inorganic Chemistry, Dr. Dan DuBois at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory shares three fundamental discoveries made to build catalysts that drive the storage of electrical energy inside chemical bonds. He was invited to write this review article after winning the American Chemical Society Inorganic Chemistry Award in 2012. DuBois was recognized for his scientific leadership in a career highlighted by outstanding science, popular seminars and talks, and a reputation as an insightful, gregarious mentor.

Replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar energy requires a method of storing the energy generated and releasing it when needed. "Both of these can contribute significantly to our energy needs, but their energy output can vary over periods as short as a few minutes to as long as a year. This leads to mismatches between energy production and demand that could be overcome by energy storage," said DuBois.

One option is to store the energy in (i.e., fuels), and then break those bonds when the energy is needed. The necessary reactions demand an efficient catalyst based on nickel or other abundant transition metal. Designing catalysts means understanding the underlying scientific principles. With his colleagues at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, DuBois has answered fundamental questions about what makes a catalyst work.

"His work is the foundation we use to design a catalyst to do what we want to do. Without this basic knowledge, catalyst development relied largely on trial and error," said Dr. Monte Helm, Deputy Director of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis.

In his review, DuBois focuses on three themes: thermodynamic modeling, catalyst structure, and proton movement. Designing a catalyst involves creating a reaction path that avoids troubling intermediates with excessively high or low energy barriers. To examine intermediates, DuBois and his colleagues built comprehensive thermodynamic models to provide detailed simulations. The models include new approaches to measure thermodynamic hydride acceptor and donor abilities. They also include data about redox potentials and the solvent.

"We've used relationships extracted from the thermodynamic models to create powerful tools for predicting and understanding the relative free energies of intermediates," said DuBois.

The second advance DuBois discusses is conceptually partitioning catalysts into first, second, and outer coordination spheres. The first coordination sphere is closest to the active site at the heart of the . Understanding the proton-transfer reactions that involve the second and outer spheres, once dismissed as "shrubbery," and the associated barriers is vital to designing needed catalysts.

Finally, the review covers the motion of protons, specifically pendant amines, small dangling molecules with strategically placed nitrogen atoms in the second coordination sphere. The amines create paths for intra- and intermolecular proton transfers. "Dan's influence on our research at PNNL is profound, as is obvious when you read this article," said Dr. Morris Bullock, Director of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis.

Further discoveries critical for designing the needed catalysts are being made at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and DuBois continues to be a part of the Center. He currently serves as an advisor, working on research and counseling other scientists.

Explore further: Catalysts' outer coordination spheres take their place in the spotlight

More information: DuBois DL. 2014. "Development of Molecular Electrocatalysts for Energy Storage." Inorganic Chemistry Article ASAP. DOI: 10.1021/ic4026969

Related Stories

New catalyst dives into water to produce hydrogen

August 14, 2013

( —Few catalysts are energy efficient, highly active, stable, and operate in water, but a nickel-based catalyst designed at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory quickly ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

New 'self-healing' gel makes electronics more flexible

November 25, 2015

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a first-of-its-kind self-healing gel that repairs and connects electronic circuits, creating opportunities to advance the ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Atom-sized craters make a catalyst much more active

November 24, 2015

Bombarding and stretching an important industrial catalyst opens up tiny holes on its surface where atoms can attach and react, greatly increasing its activity as a promoter of chemical reactions, according to a study by ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.