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Molecular Cobalt Pentapyridine Catalyst for Hydrogen Generation





Hydrogen gas derived from water is an ideal carbon neutral and renewable fuel; but to produce it efficiently, the water splitting electrolysis process requires an expensive catalyst such as platinum. A Berkeley Lab team led by chemists Jeffrey Long and Christopher Chang has discovered a highly effective and very low cost alternative catalyst using cobalt nested within the pocket of a carbon-based molecule. Specifically, the researchers have demonstrated that small changes in the structure of the carbon-based molecule surrounding the cobalt atom can enhance its catalytic activity.

In tests, the Berkeley Lab-designed cobalt catalyst produced hydrogen gas from purified water at rates ten to 100 times higher than other known molecular cobalt electrocatalysts operating in neutral aqueous media. The fine-tuning of its carbon-based pocket significantly improved the catalyst’s performance in comparison with its initial molecular design. As measured by its catalytic energy overpotential, where a lower number is better, the fine-tuned molecule was lower by 250-300 mV.

These results demonstrate that this active and long-lived cobalt catalyst is highly tunable, and that changes as subtle as the substitution of a single pyridine ring in the carbon-based pocket molecule produce measurable improvements. The research points toward a menu of additional structural changes that can be expected to produce a succession of even better performing, low cost water splitting catalysts.

While platinum is unsurpassed as a water splitting catalyst, Earth abundant cobalt is about 200 times less expensive. That has stimulated intensive research to find a high performing cobalt catalyst. Those efforts have focused on development of “molecular” catalysts, in which metals such as cobalt are bound in organic, carbon-based molecules that can be chemically modified to improve catalytic activity and open a developmental path toward a cobalt-based catalyst that can perform as well as platinum.

DEVELOPMENT STAGE:  Proven principle.

STATUS: Patent pending.  Available for licensing or collaborative research.

Sun, Y., Bigi, J.P., Piro, N.A., Tang, M.L., Long, J.R., Chang, C.J. “Molecular Cobalt Pentapyridine Catalysts for Generating Hydrogen from Water,” Journal of the American Chemical Society 2011, Vol. 133, May 25, 2011.


Metal-oxo Catalysts for Generating Hydrogen from Water, JIB-2724

Clean Production of Hydrogen Gas from Flowing Water, IB-2093

Nanoporous Metal-inorganic Materials for Storage and Capture of Hydrogen, Carbon Dioxide and other Gases, IB-2303


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