Explore as a

Share our content

Designer catalysts for a sustainable future

Professor Alison Downard and Dr Chris Fitchett examining a reaction flask in the chemistry laboratory. Photo provided

Professor Alison Downard and her team from the University of Canterbury will use a novel strategy to more efficiently speed up very slow reactions, such as the splitting of water and the reduction of a common greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide. This could lead to exciting new prospects for renewable energy storage and climate change mitigation

Published 2 November 2017

Downard Marshall Fitchett lab v2

The research team, (from left to right) Dr Chris Ftichett, Professor Alison Downard, and Dr Aaron Marshall

The challenge of developing sustainable, environmentally-friendly energy sources must be tackled using multiple technologies ― each with their own unique hurdles. For example, the generation of energy from intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind must be coupled with efficient energy storage methods. Batteries and supercapacitors are the direct solutions for energy storage; however, their capacity is limited.

Indirect storage is an alternative method of energy storage, whereby renewable energy is used to produce fuels and other useful chemicals which are then stored. For example, renewable energy can drive the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, which are stored and then recombined in fuel cells to produce electricity on-demand. Another exciting example is the conversion of a greenhouse gas ― carbon dioxide ― into carbon monoxide, a building block for fuels, including methanol and diesel. However, these chemical reactions are inherently slow and thus require electrocatalysts to accelerate their reaction rates. Electrocatalysts are a special type of catalyst that accelerate electrically-driven chemical reactions. However, current electrocatalysts perform poorly or are very costly and are not suitable for commercial use.

Professor Alison Downard and Dr Chris Fitchett from the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, and Dr Aaron Marshall from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Canterbury have received a Marsden Fund grant to design more effective and stable electocatalysts. They will study how to tailor the molecular environment of well-known electrocatalysts (such as iron porphyrin) to achieve high reaction rates.

The findings from this study will lead to exciting long-term prospects such as carbon-free energy production and climate change mitigation.