Chemists from the University of Girona get oxygen from water, using iron catalysts

The research results were published on the website of the prestigious journal 'Nature Chemistry' and will appear in the print edition as well. The Universitat de Girona is particularly strong in research related to water. The study opens a new path to develop new technologies to carry out artificial photosynthesis.


September 14, 2011 11:16 PM

Girona (ACN).- A team of scientists from the Universitat de Girona (UdG), about 100 kilometres North from Barcelona, has managed to get energy from water, using iron and sunlight. Through the use of iron and sunlight, researchers have managed to break water molecules apart, splitting oxygen from hydrogen which can then be used as fuel. Research has shown that iron-rich metal, inexpensive and nontoxic, can act as a catalyst (a substance that accelerates the chemical reaction without being consumed during the process). The team of chemists from the University of Girona who made the discovery is led by Dr. Julio Lloret and Dr. Miquel Costas. Their findings were already published on the website of the presitgious journal ‘Nature’ and will now be published in the journal’s print edition. The UdG is particularly strong regarding research related to water.

Replacing oil with renewable energy sources that are safe and emit no CO2 is one of the targets in the fight to reduce climate change. Therefore, one of the dreams of modern science has been to mimic plants, which have the ability to transform sunlight into chemical energy through photosynthesis.

To this end, one of the most active branches of chemical research focuses on non-toxic metal catalysts and the use of sunlight to convert water into energy. This means that by the action of these metals, water molecules are separated, isolate the oxygen to take the hydrogen for fuel.

Among all the processes intervening in the photosynthesis, the transformation of water into oxygen is the most complex one. To achieve this, a catalyst, which is a chemical that facilitates the reaction, is used. Currently, however, the only efficient catalysts are based on highly toxic heavy metals, which are expensive and scarce, such as iridium or ruthenium. Therefore, they are not suitable for use in large scale.

Iron, a very efficient catalyst

However now a team of scientists from the University of Girona (UdG) have shown that iron simple systems are also suitable for gaining oxygen out of water. And furthermore, they do it in a very efficient way. Researchers from the Bioinorganic and Supramolecular Chemistry group (QBIS) from the Department of Chemistry at the UdG have managed to generate separate particles of oxygen from water using iron. The finding is particularly relevant as iron is an abundant, inexpensive and nontoxic metal, suitable to be used in large scale processes. Therefore, the study opens a new path particularly interesting to develop new technologies to achieve photosynthesis in an artificial way, which is one of the objectives in the field of renewable energies. Currently, UdG researchers are studying how to assemble this chemical reaction to systems that can capture sunlight.

The group of scientists who promoted this research has been led by Dr. Julio Lloret and Dr. Miquel Costas and Dr. Laura Gómez and PhD students Zoel Codolà and Isaac García-Bosch. The team of chemists has also enjoyed the collaboration of the engineer Juan José Pla. The project is sponsored by the European Union, as well as by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Catalan Government, through the programme ICREA Acadèmia.

The article on this work, Efficient Water Oxidation Catalysts Based on Readily Available Iron Coordination Complexes has been published on the online version of journal ‘Nature Chemistry’, from the prestigious group ‘Nature’. The study will also appear in the print edition of the journal next issue.