Chemists solve persistent problem after four decades
After almost four decades, Leiden and Eindhoven chemists have resolved the discussion about the correct model regarding the simplest chemical reaction in heterogeneous catalysis, which is essential for fuel cells. Using a unique curved platinum surface, Ludo Juurlink and Ph.D. candidate Richard van Lent from Leiden and Michael Gleeson from DIFFER showed which model correctly describes the reaction of hydrogen. They published their findings in Science on 11 January.
For almost four decades there has been a heated debate in the chemical literature: which of the two existing models for the reaction of hydrogen to a platinum catalyst is correct (see box)? Traditional methods were not sufficient enough to prove this. Leiden chemist Ludo Juurlink and Michael Gleeson of the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) decided to develop a new method to provide conclusive evidence, which turned out to be successful.
The two existing models for heterogeneous catalysis give different predictions about how the reaction of hydrogen depends on the structure of the platinum surface. By means of measurements the researchers could determine the reactivity of hydrogen and thus prove which model is correct. The curved platinum crystal was crucial for this, which was made by Dutch company in Zaandam for the first time. "Because the platinum surface is curved, the atomic structure changes very gradually along the surface," explains Juurlink. "You can compare this structure to a staircase, whose steps towards the edges become narrower and narrower. In the middle it looks more like a ballroom." It turned out that the reactivity of hydrogen was linearly dependent with how close the steps are to each other. The further apart the steps were, the less reactive hydrogen was. "And so the model that predicted a non-linear behaviour is incorrect," he says.
The research was conducted in ultra-high vacuum and provides important insights. "We now know better how to calculate the speed of chemical reactions—one of the models does not contribute significantly," says Juurlink. "In addition, we now know that these curved crystal surfaces offer a unique, new opportunity to learn how chemical reactions actually occur on surfaces. We are certainly going to do more research with that."
Almost all major chemical industrial processes use heterogeneous catalysis. Catalysts are sometimes expensive and rare, such as platinum, a common catalyst found in fuel cells and car exhaust systems. "The unusual thing is that we usually don't even really know how and why such catalysts speed up chemical reactions," says Juurlink. Better insight into this how and why will contribute to making the chemical industry more sustainable. "Based on a better understanding of what is happening at the atomic level, we can develop new catalysts," says Juurlink. "Catalysts that cause less energy loss and are less dependent on expensive and rare materials."