Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) scientists have been able to observe the smallest details of hydrogen production with the synthetic mineral pentlandite. This makes it possible to develop strategies for the design of robust and cost-effective catalysts for hydrogen production.

The working groups of Prof. Wolfgang Schuhmann and Dr. Ulf-Peter Apfel from the RUB and the team headed by Prof. Patrick R. Unwin from the University of Warwick have reported their work with publication in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

The team from Bochum in the laboratory: Tsvetan Tarnev, Corina Andronescu and Mathias Smialkowski (from the left).  Image Credit: Ruhr-University Bochum. Click image for the largest view.

Hydrogen gas is considered a possible future source of energy and can be produced from water using platinum catalysts and electricity. However, alternative catalysts made of cheaper and more readily available materials with equally high efficiency are barely known.

There are a number of materials that, like platinum, are able to catalyze the reaction of water into hydrogen. “These include metal chalcogenides such as the mineral pentlandite, which is just as efficient as platinum and is also significantly more stable towards catalyst poisons such as sulfur,” explained Ulf-Peter Apfel. Pentlandite consists of iron, nickel and sulfur. Its structure is similar to that of the catalytic centers of hydrogen-producing enzymes found in a variety of sources, including green algae.

In the current study, the researchers investigated the hydrogen production rates of artificially prepared crystalline surfaces of the mineral pentlandite in a drop of liquid with a diameter of a few hundred nanometres. They used scanning electrochemical cell microscopy for this purpose.

This enabled them to clarify how the structure and composition of the material influence the electrocatalytic properties of iron-nickel sulfide. Even the smallest changes in the ratio between iron and nickel by varying the synthesis conditions or the ageing of the material considerably changed the activity in the electrochemical hydrogen formation. “With these findings, we can now continue to work and develop strategies to improve many more robust and cheap catalysts,” said Ulf-Peter Apfel.

The researchers also showed that scanning electrochemical cell microscopy makes it possible to link information on the structure, composition and electrochemical activity of the materials in a spatially resolved manner. The method thus makes it possible to design catalysts specifically and to produce highly active materials this way. “In future, this method will therefore play an important role in the search for electrocatalytically active, heterogeneous catalysts,” said Wolfgang Schuhmann.

The pentlandite sounds very interesting. It can be made from lots less expensive ingredients. One day somebody is going to find a drop in tablet that just fizzes free hydrogen and is super cheap. Meanwhile that energy cost still hovers and the storage wall remains. But hydrogen will come as the discoveries mount up. The technique here might just be the long term payoff. Watching the electrolysis in real time will help a great deal.


1 Comment so far

  1. Jagdish on April 23, 2018 12:01 PM

    Hydrogen is a gas and holding is inconvenient. We should. Try to produce short chain soot less liquid fuels.

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