Speeding Up Catalysts for Energy Storage

Researchers develop the fastest synthetic catalyst for hydrogen gas production.

The Science

Chemical bonds in hydrogen gas can be harnessed to power fuel cells or internal combustion engines. Researchers recently reported the fastest synthetic catalyst for hydrogen gas production to date, using a natural bacterial catalyst as inspiration.

The Impact

The findings could lead to the development of optimal strategies for producing environmentally friendly, affordable hydrogen fuel.


Nature uses catalysts to generate fuels to store energy in chemical bonds. Scientists have struggled to design catalysts based on cheap, earth-abundant metals that are as efficient and inexpensive as nature’s catalysts. To address this problem, researchers from the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory turned to a bacterial catalyst for inspiration, developing an inexpensive nickel-based catalyst that produces 45 million hydrogen molecules per second. Surprisingly, the key to speeding up the catalyst for energy storage was slowing it down! As they developed the bioinspired catalyst, the scientists tested their catalysts in reactions by combining the catalyst and acids in different media. They discovered that the synthetic catalyst produced hydrogen faster in a viscous liquid than in a free-flowing liquid, suggesting that by restricting catalyst movement, they might speed up the reaction. Moreover, lengthening the “arms” of the catalyst (i.e., increasing the number of carbons in the alkyl chains) slowed their flopping movement and further speeded up hydrogen gas production. The researchers conducted molecular modeling studies using a high-performance computer at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) to understand how the arms behave in different media. EMSL is a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility. The synthetic catalyst’s unique properties could pave the way for efficient and inexpensive hydrogen production to power fuel cells or internal combustion engines.

Principal Investigator(s)

Molly O’Hagan
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science user facility. Work was performed in part using molecular science computing at EMSL. This material is based on work at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center, funded by the Office of Science Office of Basic Energy Sciences.


A. J. P. Cardenas, B. Ginovska, N. Kumar, J. Hou, S. Raugei, M. L. Helm, A. M. Appel, R. M. Bullock, and M. O’Hagan, “Controlling proton delivery through catalyst structural dynamics.” Angewandte Chemie 55(43),13509 -513 (2016). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201607460.