Energy researchers invent a metal chameleon that acts like many others

Thefts of catalytic converters from cars and trucks have exploded nationwide in recent years. Catalytic converters are valuable because of the precious metals – rhodium and palladium – they contain. In fact, palladium can be more expensive than gold. But what if we didn’t need to put those precious metals into catalytic converters in the first place? It may have been a fantasy not long ago, but new technology being developed at the University of Minnesota could make it a reality sooner than we think.

The first-of-its-kind device, called a “catalytic condenser,” is poised to break down longstanding barriers in the field of renewable energy. U of M researchers believe this groundbreaking invention could significantly advance the technology of storing renewable energy, manufacturing renewable fuels, and manufacturing sustainable materials, while reducing dependence on supplies. limited in precious metals.

The research that produced the invention is published online in JACS Au, one of the leading open access journals of the American Chemical Society, where it was selected as an Editor’s Choice publication. The team is also working with the U of M Office of Technology Commercialization and holds a provisional patent on the device.

Catalytic converters, along with dozens of other products that many of us use daily, continue to rely on materials and chemical treatment that have not changed in over a century. Many of these materials, such as the precious metals ruthenium, platinum, rhodium, and palladium, have unique electronic surface properties. They can act as both metals and metal oxides, which makes them essential for controlling chemical reactions.

This new device electronically converts a metal into behaving like another to use as a catalyst to speed up chemical reactions. He is the first to demonstrate that alternative materials that are electronically modified to provide new properties can produce faster and more efficient chemical processing. This breakthrough opens the door to new catalytic technologies using base metal catalysts.

In order to develop this method of adjusting the catalytic properties of alternative materials, the researchers relied on their knowledge of the behavior of electrons on surfaces. The team successfully tested a theory that adding and removing electrons to one material could transform the metal oxide into something that mimicked the properties of another.

“Atoms really don’t want to change their number of electrons, but we invented the catalytic capacitor device that allows us to adjust the number of electrons on the surface of the catalyst,” said Paul Dauenhauer, MacArthur Fellow and professor. of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota who led the research team. “This opens up a whole new opportunity to control chemistry and make abundant materials act like valuable materials.”

The catalytic condenser device uses a combination of nanoscale films to move and stabilize electrons on the surface of the catalyst. This design has the unique mechanism of combining metals and metal oxides with graphene to enable rapid electron flow with tunable surfaces for chemistry.

“We see the catalytic condenser as a platform technology that can be implemented in a multitude of manufacturing applications,” said Dan Frisbie, professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and member of the research team. “Basic design ideas and new components can be modified for almost any chemistry we can imagine.”

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of California at Santa Barbara also participated in the study.

Read the full press release.

Read more about catalytic condensers on the Dauenhauer Research Group website.


About the College of Science and Engineering
The University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering consolidates the University’s programs in engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science into a single college. The college is ranked among the top academic programs in the country and comprises 12 academic departments offering a wide range of degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. Learn more about

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