April 18, 2024

A team of experts led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities has developed a gadget that electronically changes one metal to behave like another, allowing it to be used as a catalyst to accelerate chemical reactions. Known as a ‘catalytic condenser’, the gadget is the first to show electronic modification of alternative materials to provide new features can result in faster and more efficient chemical processing. The innovation paves the way for new non-precious metal catalyst-based technologies for applications in storing renewable energy, producing renewable fuels, and producing sustainable materials.

For the past century, chemical processing has relied on the usage of certain materials to encourage the production of chemicals and materials that we use every day. Precious metals such as palladium, platinum, ruthenium and rhodium have distinct electrical surface properties. They are important for controlling chemical reactions because they may behave as both metals and metal oxides.

These materials are expensive and frequently in short supply. So, they have become a major roadblock to technological advancement. The energy experts used their understanding of how electrons behave at surfaces to develop this method for modifying the catalytic characteristics of alternate materials. Adding and withdrawing electrons from one material might transform it into a metal oxide with properties similar to another.

The research has been published online in the journal JACS Au. The team holds a provisional patent on the gadget and is working with the University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization.

Paul Dauenhauer, who led the research team, said that though atoms do not wish to adjust their number of electrons, the team developed the catalytic condenser, which allows them to tune the number of electrons at the catalyst’s surface. Dauenhauer is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota. 

The rhodium and palladium contained within catalytic converters make them valuable. Palladium is usually more costly than gold.

The catalytic condenser moves and stabilises electrons at the catalyst’s surface using a combination of nanoscale films. This concept uses a novel technique that combines metals and metal oxides with graphene to enable fast electron flow on customisable chemical surfaces.

Dan Frisbie, a professor and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and a research team member, said that the catalytic condenser is a platform technology that may be used in a variety of manufacturing applications.

The researchers intend to continue their work on catalytic condensers by applying it to precious metals to solve some of the most pressing sustainability and environmental problems.