Research For Our Energy Future


Driving Toward Alternative Fuels

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Chemists Joon Park (left) and Jose Rodriguez study catalysts that could help improve the performance of fuel cells.

Featured Publication:

Producing Pure Hydrogen

Unique Tools Steering Catalysis Science

Illuminating Discoveries

To characterize the state and activity of catalysts as they exist under reaction conditions, scientists use bright beams of x-rays at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS). Capable of producing sample environments with extremely high temperatures and pressures, the NSLS is one of the world-leading scientific facilities for catalysis research.

These capabilities are continuously promoted, improved, and expanded by the Synchrotron Catalysis Consortium (SCC), an organization sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and made up of researchers from academic, industrial, and national laboratories. The SCC provides visiting researchers from around the world with: dedicated beam time at the NSLS for experiments using a technique called x-ray absorption fine structure; research staff to assist in the experimental set-up and data analysis; and training courses and help sessions. The consortium also aids in the development and testing of new hardware and software for catalytic and electrocatalytic research.

In addition to these techniques, Brookhaven researchers use a suite of investigative tools, including spectroscopy techniques in the Lab’s chemistry department and powerful microscopes and other probes at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). In the near future, the souped-up capabilities of the upgrade to the NSLS , the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS -II), will allow scientists to characterize even more complex catalytic systems more efficiently and at higher resolution.

Catalysis on the Nanoscale

Materials on the nanoscale – on the order of billionths of a meter – have different chemical and physical properties than bulk materials. The gold in a wedding band, for example, is inert. But gold nanoparticles are actually highly reactive, and can play a role in numerous catalytic systems. To study the activity and key reaction sites of catalysts at the nanoscale, Brookhaven scientists use the state-of-the-art fabrication and characterization instruments at the CFN and NSLS.

For example, scientists have used data from x-ray techniques at the NSLS to study gold and copper nanoparticles for use in the water-gas shift reaction — a process that helps eliminate impurities in hydrogen production for fuel cells. While metal nanoparticles alone are not useful in this reaction, when they are supported on the metal cerium oxide, they have tremendous catalytic activity. In addition, the team discovered that although gold nanoparticles continue to show the greatest catalytic activity, copper is almost as reactive and its cost is much lower.

Computing Power

Building off of the work done in the laboratory, Brookhaven scientists use advanced computational methods to model optimal catalysts for particular reactions and to apply theory to validate the results. Special help comes from New York Blue, an IBM supercomputer located at Brookhaven as part of a cooperative effort between Stony Brook University and the Laboratory. Brookhaven scientists also use supercomputers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and in-house operations to build a framework for designing the best catalysts for the job.

Catalyzing New Energy Innovations

One of the most important missions of energy research is to develop methods for exploiting, converting, and optimizing energy sources. Catalysis serves as a crosscutting enabling science in this quest, with the potential to lead to renewable, efficient, and inexpensive alternative sources to bring the nation out of its current energy crisis. At Brookhaven, scientists are using expertise, world-class research instruments, and theoretical methods to drive these revolutionary processes to the next level.

Last Modified: November 6, 2009