Energy experts are developing chameleon metal that mimics the behavior of various metals

A team of experts led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities has developed a device that electronically alters one metal to behave like another, allowing it to be used as a catalyst to speed up chemical reactions. Known as the “catalytic capacitor,” the device is the first to demonstrate the electronic modification of alternative materials to provide new functions that can lead to faster and more efficient chemical processing. The innovation paves the way for new technologies based on base metal catalysts for applications in renewable energy storage, renewable fuel production and the manufacture of sustainable materials.

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

These materials are expensive and often in short supply. So they have become a major obstacle to technological progress. The energy experts used their knowledge of how electrons behave on surfaces to develop this method for modifying the catalytic properties of alternative materials. Adding and removing electrons from one material could turn it into a metal oxide with properties similar to another.

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

Paul Dauenhauer, who led the research team, said although atoms don’t want to adjust their electron count, the team developed the catalytic capacitor, which allows them to tune the number of electrons on 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 in catalysts make them valuable. Palladium is generally more expensive than gold.

The catalytic capacitor moves and stabilizes electrons on the catalyst surface using a combination of nanofilms. This concept uses a novel technique that combines metals and metal oxides with graphene to enable fast electron flow on tunable chemical surfaces.

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

Researchers intend to continue their work on catalytic capacitors by applying them to precious metals to solve some of the most pressing sustainability and environmental problems. Energy experts are developing chameleon metal that mimics the behavior of various metals

Ryan Sederquist

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