Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a method to change the properties of a metal and make it mimic those of different metals. Research is published online on JACS Au.
Chemical processing in the last century has been based on the use of very specific materials: metals such as ruthenium, platinum, rhodium and palladium, with extraordinary surface electronic properties. They can act as both metals and metal oxides, making them critical for controlling chemical reactions.
If the matter seems complex to you, I will give you an immediate example: in the last year in Italy they have increased dramatically the theft of catalytic converters. Because? Well, because inside them there are metals such as rhodium and palladium: the latter can be more expensive than gold. Their scarcity is becoming a major obstacle to technological progress.
Less rare metals are needed
This is where the University of Minnesota team led by Paul Dauenhauer, professor of chemical engineering and materials science. With his team, Dauenhauer has developed a method for fine-tuning the catalytic properties of alternative materials to metals that I have listed.
To do this, they put their knowledge of electron behavior to good use to achieve a result: a catalytic capacitor device that allows you to regulate the number of electrons on the surface of the catalyst. In summary? They transform the metal oxide into something that mimics the properties of another.
This opens up a whole new opportunity to control chemistry and make popular and inexpensive materials behave like precious metals.
How does the 'catalytic condenser' work?
The device uses nanometer films to move and stabilize the electrons on the surface of the catalyst. Specifically, the researchers combined an aluminum film with graphene, optimizing the latter to take on the properties of other materials.
The substantial ability to fine tune the catalytic and electronic properties of the catalyst exceeded our expectations.
What does it mean, in a nutshell? That applying these catalytic capacitors to more common metals will allow them to replace precious ones in many applications. Above all it renewable energy storage, the production of renewable fuels and the production of innovative materials.
I find it an incredible invention, which could reopen the race to develop new sustainable technologies.