A technique for creating a new molecule that structurally and chemically replicates the active part of the widely used industrial catalyst molybdenite has been developed by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). This technique holds promise for the creation of catalytic materials that can serve as effective low-cost alternatives to platinum for generating hydrogen gas from water that is acidic.
Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long, chemists who hold joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, led a research team that synthesized a molecule to mimic the triangle-shaped molybdenum disulfide units along the edges of molybdenite crystals, which is . almost all of the catalytic activity takes place. Since the bulk of molybdenite crystalline material is relatively inert from a catalytic standpoint, molecular analogs of the catalytically active edge sites could be used to make new materials that are much more efficient and cost-effective catalysts.
Although commonly thought of as a lubricant, molybdenite is the standard catalyst used to remove sulfur from petroleum and natural gas for the reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions when those fuels are burned. Recent studies have shown that in its nanoparticle form, molybdenite also holds promise for catalyzing the electrochemical and photochemical generation of hydrogen from water. Hydrogen could play a key role in future renewable energy technologies if a relatively cheap, efficient and carbon-neutral means of producing it can be developed.
Currently, the best available technique for producing hydrogen is to split water molecules into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen using platinum as the catalyst. However, with platinum going for more than $2,000 an ounce, the market is wide open for a low cost alternative catalyst. Molybdenite is far more plentiful and about 1/70th the cost of platinum, but poses other problems.
Chang, Long and their research team met this challenge using a pentapyridyl ligand known as PY5Me2 to create a molybdenum disulfide molecule that, while not found in nature, is stable and structurally identical to the proposed triangular edge sites of molybdenite. It was shown that these synthesized molecules can form a layer of material that is analogous to constructing a sulfide edge of molybdenite.
In 2010, Chang and Long and Hemamala Karunadasa, who is the lead author on this new Science paper, used the PY5Me2ligand to create a molybdenum-oxo complex that can effectively and efficiently catalyze the generation of hydrogen from neutral buffered water or even sea water. Molybdenite complexes synthesized from this new molecular analog can just as effectively and efficiently catalyze hydrogen gas from acidic water.
DOE/ Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Hydrogen from acidic water: Potential low cost alternative to platinum for splitting water." ScienceDaily, 9 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.