Chemical Research Breakthrough Could Transform Clean Energy Technology

Clean Renewable Mysterious Energy Concept

To harness solar energy, researchers at UVA have developed a more efficient catalyst made from cobalt and titanium, which are abundant in nature. This catalyst aids in splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, enabling the storage of hydrogen as a fuel source for power generation.

By some estimates, the amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the earth in one year is greater than the sum of all the energy we could ever produce using non-renewable resources. The technology necessary to convert sunlight into electricity has developed rapidly, but inefficiencies in the storage and distribution of that power have remained a significant problem, making solar energy impractical on a large scale.

However, a breakthrough by researchers at UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory could eliminate a critical obstacle from the process, a discovery that represents a giant stride toward a clean-energy future.

One way to harness solar energy is by using solar electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen produced by the process is stored as fuel, in a form that can be transferred from one place to another and used to generate power upon demand. To split water molecules into their component parts, a catalyst is necessary, but the catalytic materials currently used in the process, also known as the oxygen evolution reaction, are not efficient enough to make the process practical.

Using an innovative chemical strategy developed at UVA, however, a team of researchers led by chemistry professors Sen Zhang and T. Brent Gunnoe have produced a new form of catalyst using the elements cobalt and titanium. The advantage of these elements is that they are much more abundant in nature than other commonly used catalytic materials containing precious metals such as iridium or ruthenium.

Sen Zhang, T. Brent Gunnoe, and Chang Liu

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sen Zhang’s (left) and Commonwealth Professor of Chemistry T. Brent Gunnoe (center) are leading a research project that advances fundamental knowledge for new solar technology. Chang Liu (right), a fourth-year graduate student in the Zhang lab, is the first author of their paper published in Nature Catalysis. Credit: University of Virginia

“The new process involves creating active catalytic sites at the atomic level on the surface of titanium oxide nanocrystals, a technique that produces a durable catalytic material and one that is better at triggering the oxygen evolution reaction,” Zhang said. “New approaches to efficient oxygen evolution reaction catalysts and enhanced fundamental understanding of them are key to enabling a possible transition to scaled-use of renewable solar energy. This work is a perfect example of how to optimize the catalyst efficiency for clean energy technology by tuning nanomaterials at the atomic scale.”

According to Gunnoe, “This innovation, centered on achievements from the Zhang lab, represents a new method to improve and understand catalytic materials with a resulting effort that involves the integration of advanced materials synthesis, atomic-level characterization, and quantum mechanics theory.”

 “Several years ago, UVA joined the MAXNET Energy consortium, comprised of eight Max Planck Institutes (Germany), UVA, and Cardiff University (UK), which brought together international collaborative efforts focused on electrocatalytic water oxidation. MAXNET Energy was the seed for the current joint efforts between my group and the Zhang lab, which has been and continues to be a fruitful and productive collaboration,” Gunnoe said.

With the help of the Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and their state-of-the-art synchrotron X-ray absorption spectroscopy user facilities, which uses radiation to examine the structure of matter at the atomic level, the research team found that the catalyst has a well-defined surface structure that allows them to clearly see how the catalyst evolves in the meantime of the oxygen evolution reaction and allows them to accurately evaluate its performance.

“The work used X-ray beamlines from the Advanced Photon Source and the Advanced Light Source, including a portion of a ‘rapid-access’ program set aside for a quick feedback loop to explore emergent or pressing scientific ideas,” said Argonne X-ray physicist Hua Zhou, a co-author on the paper. “We’re very excited that both national scientific user facilities can substantially contribute to such clever and neat work on water splitting that will provide a leap forward for clean energy technologies.”

Both the Advanced Photon Source and the Advanced Light Source are U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facilities located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, respectively. 

Additionally, researchers at Caltech, using newly developed quantum mechanics methods were able to accurately predict the rate of oxygen production caused by the catalyst, which provided the team with a detailed understanding of the reaction’s chemical mechanism.

“We have been developing new quantum mechanics techniques to understand the oxygen evolution reaction mechanism for more than five years, but in all previous studies, we could not be sure of the exact catalyst structure. Zhang’s catalyst has a well-defined atomic structure, and we find that our theoretical outputs are, essentially, in exact agreement with experimental observables,” said William A. Goddard III, a professor of chemistry, materials science, and applied physics at Caltech and one of the project’s principal investigators. “This provides the first strong experimental validation of our new theoretical methods, which we can now use to predict even better catalysts that can be synthesized and tested. This is a major milestone toward global clean energy.”

“This work is a great example of the team effort by UVA and other researchers to work towards clean energy and the exciting discoveries that come from these interdisciplinary collaborations,” said Jill Venton, chair of UVA’s Department of Chemistry.

The paper by Zhang, Gunnoe, Zhou, and Goddard was published on December 14, 2020, in Nature Catalysis. The paper’s co-authors are Chang Liu, a UVA Ph.D. student in the Zhang group, and Jin Qian, a Caltech Ph.D. student in the Goddard group. Other authors include Colton Sheehan, a UVA undergraduate student; Zhiyong Zhang, a UVA postdoctoral scholar; Hyeyoung Shin, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar; Yifan Ye, Yi-Sheng Liu and Jinghua Guo, three researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Gang Wan and Cheng-Jun Sun, two researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory; and Shuang Li and Sooyeon Hwang, two researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Their research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy-funded user facilities.

Reference: “Oxygen evolution reaction over catalytic single-site Co in a well-defined brookite TiO2 nanorod surface” by Chang Liu, Jin Qian, Yifan Ye, Hua Zhou, Cheng-Jun Sun, Colton Sheehan, Zhiyong Zhang, Gang Wan, Yi-Sheng Liu, Jinghua Guo, Shuang Li, Hyeyoung Shin, Sooyeon Hwang, T. Brent Gunnoe, William A. Goddard III and Sen Zhang, 14 December 2020, Nature Catalysis.
DOI: 10.1038/s41929-020-00550-5

14 Comments on "Chemical Research Breakthrough Could Transform Clean Energy Technology"

  1. Conversion efficiencies? Why no numbers?

  2. Gregory Vanderlaan | December 20, 2020 at 6:58 am | Reply

    The Schatz Lab at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California Invented a Hydrogen Fuel Cell that Stores Solar Power about 20 Years Ago.

  3. If you just add about 5% hydrogen (by BCU) to your existing fuel, it will burn completely and as efficiently as possible in the motor cylinder. The exhaust will be CO, CO2, and water; no particulate pollution. (still does not address global warming greenhouse gasses, though) No more need for a catalytic converter on your car, or DEF systems on your truck: this will be even cleaner; and it works even when the motor is cold. They have used it in diesel forklifts inside warehouses to keep the air clean.
    Carbon fiber tanks can hold the hydrogen, and then ANY quality or type of fuel can be used in your vehicle (given the correct fuel injectors). You can even burn unprocessed waste vegie-oil in your SPARK-fired motor (and yes your diesel motor also) when it is hyboosted. “They” don’t want this!
    The U.S. gets its political power from the fact that all petrol oil in the world is sold by the U.S. Dollar. If you want oil, you are under the thumb of the U.S. Government, and must do as they tell you. Sure, lots of people get really rich off oil, and they are the puppets that keep the system up and running the way it is. But they are not the ones keeping hydrogen under wraps. It is the world economic system itself.


  5. “The hydrogen produced by the process is stored as fuel, in a form that can be transferred from one place to another and used to generate power upon demand …”

    Hydrogen leaks something fierce and embrittles metals. I guess we could coat conduits and tanks with all those cheap, abundant graphene sheets … oh, wait, nope.

    “… produced a new form of catalyst using the elements cobalt and titanium.”

    Cobalt eh? Sure, no problems there … meanwhile, lithium-ion battery producers are trying to *get rid* of cobalt in their cathodes.

  6. Kinda sick of this dishonest mantra about solar being inefficient and all that. There are dead simple methods to quite efficiently store power, such as moving wagons full of rocks up a slope.

    Even if this is a little bit inefficient, who cares when you have an unlimited resource and solar cells’ (which last 20+ years easily) prices are dropping through the floor. No technology is 100% efficient…why do you think internal combustion engines get so damn hot? That heat is wasted energy, that noise is wasted energy, those vibrations are wasted energy, etc.

    They say a lie becomes believable if you repeat it enough times, and I guess a lot of people believe this one too, about all the “problems” with solar and wind…but it is a lie.

    There is no need for a scientific miracle here, folks. There is just a need for people to do it, and to buy electric stuff instead of fuel-burning stuff.

    Of course I’m all for research and such, but please leave out the dishonesty in your attempts to promote them. Of course hydrogen is useful, and will be required to de-carbonize heavy vehicles such as jumbo jets and container ships in the short-medium term….but it has long been debunked as a realistic solution to mankind’s overall energy needs, while electricity has been proven time and time again to cover most of those needs.

    • If we want a CO2 neutral energy system, we need to make green hydrogen from renewable resources. About half of the hydrogen produced in the world today, over 30 million metric tons goes to make ammonia. The increased crop production from that ammonia production used to make fertilizer helps feed over 3 billion people on this planet and as the population continues to grow, we will need even more ammonia fertilizer, so this is much more important than just fuel for transportation.

  7. This result has no value for electrolysis, while the science is nice, the proposed application is just hype, the proposed material is useless for commercial electrolysis. You can buy large-scale alkaline electrolyzers now and they have been commercial since the 1920s. (look at Nel hydrogen, or McPhy, or Siemens, even Cummins sells them). The alkaline electrolyzers use low-cost nickel electrodes which are a lot cheaper and easier to make than the materials described here. Alkaline electrolyzers also do not use expensive precious metal catalysis like platinum and iridium. They operate at hundreds of mA/cm2 and run continuously for over 60,000 hours. This report didn’t even bother to compare their catalyst with the current nickel foam electrodes used in the commercial systems, nor did they bother to operate their catalysts in the environment used in the commercial systems, 20-30% KOH. In addition, they put their catalyst on a carbon substrate which would never be allowed in a commercial system. Under oxygen evolution, the carbon substrate corrodes into CO2, quickly leading to electrode failure. The corrosion reaction also adds energy to the system so you can’t really tell how well the catalyst is doing anyway.

    These types of reports do nothing for the field, except make it sound like electrolysis technology is not commercial; in reality you can buy MW sized electrolyzers. Today about 2 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced via electrolysis every year. The issue has been that steam methane reforming produces cheaper hydrogen than electrolysis, although with cheaper electricity and low-cost electrolyzers, hydrogen from electrolysis is catching up. The dropping costs of electricity from renewables is one of the things driving the discussion of green hydrogen via electrolysis. I would also note that Siemens and others are working on manufacturing gas turbines that will burn 100% hydrogen, which could have conversion efficiencies as high as 80%, similar to the current natural gas turbine systems.

  8. Please hold still for a moment and stop the fervent thoughts. One should first agrees that Particle/Matter (not necessary hydrogen) is the best storage of energy that can be transported – not battery? If it can ever be concluded, we would be able to put our efforts in a better solution.

    Then, the next question for this particular topic of discussion is: Should we carry hydrogen or water as a fuel?

  9. Energy that stored in batteries, batteries that pollute the environment.

  10. Even with cost-competitive green hydrogen (which does not exist), you’re still dealing with hydrogen — very low density so you need huge tanks, difficult to stop it from leaking without using very expensive materials, a hydrogen infrastructure will take a long time and cost a fortune, etc

  11. “Energy that stored in batteries, batteries that pollute the environment.”

    Big Hydrocarbon or Big Metal, pick your poison — you can’t get rid of both.

    Green tech — the only reasonable approach to rapid decarbonization (we aren’t going back to small horticulture and hunter-gathering) — takes metals. More mining for copper and RREs and nickel and PGEs, etc, *will* be required to make a serious dent in carbon output.

  12. “The hydrogen produced by the process is stored as fuel, in a form that can be transferred from one place to another and used to generate power upon demand.”

    If it were used as fuel for a fusion reactor, it would produce far more energy than simply re-oxidizing it. Controlled fusion reactors for commercial use are not currently available, but they should be a priority in the energy plan for the future. The problem should be approached with the same dedication and effort as the Manhattan Project was. As it is, hydrogen chemical energy is a net loss and has to be subsidized by other energy sources such as PV solar arrays, which use up a lot of land.

  13. … cool, …

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