power of attraction

Power of attraction

What happens when you get in the way of irresistible attraction? Energy. 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.

UEA Chemist Professor 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.

Prof. 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 £120k proof of concept funding in addition to a €1.35m grant from the European Research Council to develop prototype ‘frustrated’ fuel cells and batteries. Prof Wildgoose has also been granted the prestigious 'Young Energy Storage Scientist Award' for his work on Frustrated Lewis Pairs - the Research Network on Electrochiemical Energy Storage noted his 'transformational approach to classical battery research'.

Where will you find energy?


Watch the video of Prof. Wildgoose's Inaugural Lecture on YouTube.

Greg Wildgoose Inaugural Lecture

The Expert

Prof. Gregory Wildgoose FRSC

Professor of Chemistry and Royal Society University Research Fellow
School of Chemistry

My research interests span areas of inorganic and organic synthetic chemistry, materials chemistry and physical electrochemistry. The over-arching aim of my current research is the synthesis and characterisation of organometallic and inorganic main group complexes, including the use of Frustrated Lewis Pairs, in conjunction with studies of their electrochemical properties. These are then used to drive (electro)catalytic reactions with applications in both “green synthesis” and clean energy production and storage.