Creating Big Energy on the Molecular Level

Dr. Chong and Dr. Tye discuss the differing electrochemistry of two compounds synthesized by students in Dr. Tye's lab.

Producing renewable energy is a worldwide hot topic. Jesse Tye, assistant professor of chemistry, is applying his expertise and perspective to the issue, particularly, examining the desulfurization of fossil fuels and increasing the energy density of fuels. It sounds like big-picture work, and it is, but much of Tye’s research is focused on the molecular level, specifically on hydrogen production catalysts.

“A lot of the biomass derived fuels have a low energy density,” said Tye. “In other words, how far you can push your car per gallon of fuel is short. So we look for ways to make renewable fuels that are more energy dense, allowing you to go farther on that gallon of fuel.”

The best catalysts for hydrogen production are platinum-based. Unfortunately, platinum is not an earth-abundant element. Inspired by the hydrogenase enzymes that contain the earth-abundant elements iron and sulfur and function as well as the best platinum catalysts, Tye makes new catalysts from these elements in an effort to create new, inexpensive, synthetic compounds that act as catalysts for hydrogen production.

Tye’s current project, “Alternative Clean Energy Production with Reusable Iron Catalysts,” is funded by a $50,000 grant from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund. It is also a continuation of the work he is doing as part of his Aspire Junior Faculty Research grant from 2012. The Aspire proposal was designed as a pilot study for this larger endeavor.

Both of these projects were inspired by the sulfur and iron enzyme. “In 1999, researchers obtained the structure of this enzyme. Since then, many researchers have focused on creating models of the structure of this enzyme in the lab by combining various chemicals. And that doesn’t seem to be working. They’ve made accurate models but without the same function. However, we don’t care if our creation looks exactly like the enzyme as it is found in nature. We’re focused on the functionality.”

 Daesung Chong Dr. Chong collects hydrogen gas that is produced from the electrocatalytic reduction of acetic acid.

Tye and Ball State electrochemist Daesung Chong, with the assistance of the Center for Computational Nanoscience, have focused on two major impacts from the created enzyme: voltage and longevity. “You need to be able to create, store, and convert the hydrogen back into electricity. We’re focused on the first step,” said Tye.

The longevity of the catalyst comes into play because real work applications require long term stability in order to be practical. Most of the known catalysts are greatly unstable, so Tye and his team are investigating ways to increase the stability of the catalysts. “We’re creating an inorganic molecule that resembles the functional portion of the enzyme,” said Tye. “A lot of chemistry is focused on structure-function relationships. If a chemical or compound looks like something, it probably acts like it, too. Like the old saying, ‘If it quacks like a duck...’

“In essence, what we’re doing is designing new materials to build a better battery. Today’s battery technology isn’t all that great. You cannot get even close to the amount of energy out of a battery as you put into making it. This project, on a large scale, would be taking either hydroelectric, wind, or solar energy to push this reaction. Realistically, this isn’t going to be the final solution to the battery problem. Our interest is in the development of a toolbox for future researchers to address this problem.”

According to Tye, alternative energy is a growing field. Even the fossil fuel tycoons are contributing to the research and development related to these alternative energies. The impacts of this research touch everyone, from researchers to consumers. However, the effects on consumers are still in the distant future. So for today, most of the impacts are on the researchers and their research agenda.

The students involved in this project, who are working with complex syntheses, will be able to apply the skills they’ve learned in Tye's lab to their future endeavors. Multiple undergraduate students will work on the project for the duration of the grant period of two years, during which time they will develop skills in chemical synthesis, chromatography, spectroscopy, and electrochemistry. These experiences will offer students an opportunity to present their work at a local or national meeting of the American Chemical Society and at the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Research Immersion Summer Program.

“This study will produce specific quantitative data that can be used as a roadmap for the design of a future generation of durable and efficient electrocatalysts,” said Tye. “However, in chemistry, the data is not often the most important part; it’s about how to wrap your mind around the right way to think about the problem. You have to know how to frame it before you can attack a problem.”