Design approach developed for new catalysts for energy conversion and storage

March 22, 2018, Northwestern University
The first step in synthesizing nanoparticles using scanning probe block copolymer lithography, part of a new approach for creating important new catalysts to aid in clean energy conversion and storage. Credit: Northwestern University

Northwestern University researchers have discovered a new approach for creating important new catalysts to aid in clean energy conversion and storage. The design method also has the potential to impact the discovery of new optical and data storage materials, catalysts that impact pharmaceutical synthesis and catalysts that allow for higher efficiency processing of petroleum products at much lower cost.

Scientists are continually seeking to catalyze (accelerate) the chemical reactions and processes required to create a broad range of products. Identifying and creating a is complex, especially as the potential number of , defined by composition and particle size and shape, is overwhelming.

In this study, researchers looked at the challenges of improving affordability and catalyst efficiency in the conversion and storage of clean energy. Currently, platinum-based (Pt) catalysts are the most effective and commonly used to facilitate a hydrogen evolution reaction (HER), which is, in part, the basis for how fuel cells are used to generate energy. However, as platinum is rare and costly, scientists have been seeking more affordable and efficient alternatives.

"We combined theory, a powerful new tool for synthesizing nanoparticles and more than one metallic element—in this case, an alloy consisting of platinum, copper and gold—to create a catalyst that is seven times more active than state-of-the-art commercial platinum," said Chad A. Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern.

The study, published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was co-authored by Mirkin; Chris Wolverton, the Jerome B. Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering; and Yijin Kang, an electrochemist and visiting professor from the University of Electronic Science and Technology in China.

Specifically, researchers utilized scanning probe block copolymer lithography (SPBCL), along with density-functional theory (DFT) codes, to design and synthesize the HER catalyst. Invented in Mirkin's lab at Northwestern, SPBCL enables scientists to control the growth and composition of individual nanoparticles patterned on a surface. The DFT codes outline the structural, magnetic and electronic properties of molecules, materials and defects.

"In addition to providing a new way to catalyze the HER reaction, the paper highlights a novel approach for making and discovering new particle catalysts for almost any industrially important process," Wolverton said.

This may include providing a clear path to new high-temperature superconductors; structures useful in data storage; materials for solar energy conversion nanostructures to move light around at the tiniest of scales; and new catalysts for converting low-value (affordable) chemicals into high-value products, such as pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical precursors.

Identifying new materials is essential for driving technological development. The global catalysis market is expected to reach $34.3 billion in the next six years, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc.

"To find best-in-class materials that drive any application of interest, we need to identify ways to reduce the number of possibilities that will be studied and increase the rate at which they can be explored," Kang said.

"This combination of theory and nanoscale particle synthesis begins to take on that challenge," said Mirkin, who also is a professor at McCormick.

The study is titled "Catalyst design by scanning probe block copolymer lithography."

Explore further: New method efficiently generates hydrogen from water

More information: Liliang Huang el al., "Catalyst design by scanning probe block copolymer lithography," PNAS (2018).

Related Stories

New catalyst for making fuels from shale gas

January 8, 2018

Methane in shale gas can be turned into hydrocarbon fuels using an innovative platinum and copper alloy catalyst, according to new research led by UCL (University College London) and Tufts University.

Nanoscientists develop the 'ultimate discovery tool'

June 23, 2016

The discovery power of the gene chip is coming to nanotechnology. A Northwestern University research team is developing a tool to rapidly test millions and perhaps even billions or more different nanoparticles at one time ...

Recommended for you

What happened before the Big Bang?

March 26, 2019

A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...

Can China keep it's climate promises?

March 26, 2019

China can easily meet its Paris climate pledge to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but sourcing 20 percent of its energy needs from renewables and nuclear power by that date may be considerably harder, researchers ...

In the Tree of Life, youth has its advantages

March 26, 2019

It's a question that has captivated naturalists for centuries: Why have some groups of organisms enjoyed incredibly diversity—like fish, birds, insects—while others have contained only a few species—like humans.


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.