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UEA chemists have placed hydrogen atoms between attracted molecules and produced power in the process

Chemists at UEA have applied a new way to split hydrogen, opening up the potential to develop inexpensive, ‘clean’ energy technologies.  The research provides a long overdue innovation to conventional fuel cell technology, whose basic design predates the combustion engine. The new technique uses less precious resources and is more sustainable than previous fuel cell technology.  The system works by exploiting the natural qualities of Lewis Pairs, two molecules that would typically be irresistibly compelled to combine. By altering their structure, the molecules - a Lewis Acid and a Lewis Base – can no longer join and it is this unquenched reactivity that scientists seek to manipulate.

CHE's Dr Gregory Wildgoose discovered that by placing a hydrogen molecule in the centre of this energy storm, a ‘Frustrated Lewis Pair’ can rip apart a hydrogen molecule in the presence of an electrical voltage, cleanly liberating two electrons and two protons.  This combination of “electrochemistry” with “Frustrated Lewis Pair” chemistry catalyses the oxidation of hydrogen, a fundamental reaction in a hydrogen fuel cell.  One of greatest challenges in developing clean hydrogen energy technology has been to find a catalyst that is easy and low cost to produce.  Fuel cells work by converting the chemical energy in a fuel (such as hydrogen) into electricity through electrochemical reactions. Conventional fuel cells use precious metals as a catalyst but the high cost and limited availability of materials such as platinum leads to significant problems for large-scale use.  Dr Wildgoose’s research centres on using boranes as a catalyst, a far cheaper and more abundant resource.

The new technique, developed in collaboration with Dr Andrew Ashley at Imperial College also consumes significantly less energy, using nearly 1 volt less than the uncatalysed reaction.  Whilst scientists had been previously aware of ‘Frustrated Lewis Pairs’ there have been no uses aside from hydrogenation reactions for the system in over 10 years.  The research is changing the way we understand harvesting energy from hydrogen and paves the way for further developments in clean, green energy production and storage.    The group recently secured £120,000 proof of concept funding in addition to a €1.35m grant from the European Research Council to develop prototype ‘frustrated’ fuel cells and batteries.