Tag Archives: catalysts

Curiosity Collider Cafe event: Art. Science. Cadence in Vancouver, Canada on September 26, 2018

Curiosity Collider seems to have started the fall 2018 season with a lot of oomph. They just hosted (along with Nerd Nite Vancouver and Science Slam Canada) a science bar night on September 18, 2018 (as per my September 13, 2018 posting).

Barely a week after the bar night, there’s a Collider Cafe event on September 26, 2018 (from a September 21, 2018 announcement received via email),

When science collides with music and performance,
the beat never stops!

OUR #COLLIDERCAFE IS A SPACE FOR ARTISTS, SCIENTISTS, MAKERS, AND
ANYONE INTERESTED IN ART+SCIENCE. MEET, DISCOVER, CONNECT, CREATE. Are
you curious? Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Cadence.” to
explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

When: 8:00pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2018. Doors open at 7:30pm.

Where: Café Deux Soleils 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).

COST: $5-10 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to
cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity
Collider events.

With speakers:

  • Devon More, Singer-songwriter & playwright: A Musician Philosophizes Science (talk + performance)
  • Kurtis Baute, YouTuber and self-proclaimed Whimsical Scientist: Science Communication needs Imagination
  • Douglas Bevans, Artist/musician and business owner: Hot Dog Water: The Musical
  • Victoria Gibson, Integrated Media Artist: Art About Science

PLUS, interact with Victoria Gibson’s multimedia installation “Share a tweet” after the event.

Follow updates on twitter via @ccollider or #ColliderCafe.

Head to the Facebook event page – let us know you are coming and share this event with others!

Looking for more Art+Science in Vancouver?
For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar.

There you have it!

Create gold nanoparticles and nanowires with water droplets.

For some reason it took a lot longer than usual to find this research paper despite having the journal (Nature Communications), the title (Spontaneous formation …), and the authors’ names. Thankfully, success was wrested from the jaws of defeat (I don’t care if that is trite; it’s how I felt) and links, etc. follow at the end as usual.

An April 19, 2018 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) spins fascinating tale,

An experiment that, by design, was not supposed to turn up anything of note instead produced a “bewildering” surprise, according to the Stanford scientists who made the discovery: a new way of creating gold nanoparticles and nanowires using water droplets.

The technique, detailed April 19 [2018] in the journal Nature Communications, is the latest discovery in the new field of on-droplet chemistry and could lead to more environmentally friendly ways to produce nanoparticles of gold and other metals, said study leader Richard Zare, a chemist in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a co-founder of Stanford Bio-X.

“Being able to do reactions in water means you don’t have to worry about contamination. It’s green chemistry,” said Zare, who is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford.

Noble metal

Gold is known as a noble metal because it is relatively unreactive. Unlike base metals such as nickel and copper, gold is resistant to corrosion and oxidation, which is one reason it is such a popular metal for jewelry.

Around the mid-1980s, however, scientists discovered that gold’s chemical aloofness only manifests at large, or macroscopic, scales. At the nanometer scale, gold particles are very chemically reactive and make excellent catalysts. Today, gold nanostructures have found a role in a wide variety of applications, including bio-imaging, drug delivery, toxic gas detection and biosensors.

Until now, however, the only reliable way to make gold nanoparticles was to combine the gold precursor chloroauric acid with a reducing agent such as sodium borohydride.

The reaction transfers electrons from the reducing agent to the chloroauric acid, liberating gold atoms in the process. Depending on how the gold atoms then clump together, they can form nano-size beads, wires, rods, prisms and more.

A spritz of gold

Recently, Zare and his colleagues wondered whether this gold-producing reaction would proceed any differently with tiny, micron-size droplets of chloroauric acid and sodium borohydide. How large is a microdroplet? “It is like squeezing a perfume bottle and out spritzes a mist of microdroplets,” Zare said.

From previous experiments, the scientists knew that some chemical reactions proceed much faster in microdroplets than in larger solution volumes.

Indeed, the team observed that gold nanoparticle grew over 100,000 times faster in microdroplets. However, the most striking observation came while running a control experiment in which they replaced the reducing agent – which ordinarily releases the gold particles – with microdroplets of water.

“Much to our bewilderment, we found that gold nanostructures could be made without any added reducing agents,” said study first author Jae Kyoo Lee, a research associate.

Viewed under an electron microscope, the gold nanoparticles and nanowires appear fused together like berry clusters on a branch.

The surprise finding means that pure water microdroplets can serve as microreactors for the production of gold nanostructures. “This is yet more evidence that reactions in water droplets can be fundamentally different from those in bulk water,” said study coauthor Devleena Samanta, a former graduate student in Zare’s lab and co-author on the paper.

If the process can be scaled up, it could eliminate the need for potentially toxic reducing agents that have harmful health side effects or that can pollute waterways, Zare said.

It’s still unclear why water microdroplets are able to replace a reducing agent in this reaction. One possibility is that transforming the water into microdroplets greatly increases its surface area, creating the opportunity for a strong electric field to form at the air-water interface, which may promote the formation of gold nanoparticles and nanowires.

“The surface area atop a one-liter beaker of water is less than one square meter. But if you turn the water in that beaker into microdroplets, you will get about 3,000 square meters of surface area – about the size of half a football field,” Zare said.

The team is exploring ways to utilize the nanostructures for various catalytic and biomedical applications and to refine their technique to create gold films.

“We observed a network of nanowires that may allow the formation of a thin layer of nanowires,” Samanta said.

Here’s a link and a citation for the paper,

Spontaneous formation of gold nanostructures in aqueous microdroplets by Jae Kyoo Lee, Devleena Samanta, Hong Gil Nam, & Richard N. Zare. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1562 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04023-z Published online: 19 April 2018

Not unsurprisingly given Zare’s history as recounted in the news release, this paper is open access.

New design strategy for synthesizing metal-organic frameworks (MOFs)

A Jan. 24, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces new research from South Korea,

The accurate interpretation of particle sizes and shapes in nanoporus materials is essential to understanding and optimizing the performance of porous materials used in many important existing and potentially new applications. However, only a few experimental techniques have been developed for this purpose.

A team of researchers, led by Professor Wonyoung Choe of Natural Science and Professor Ja Hun Kwak of Energy and Chemical Engineering [ at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology {UNIST}] has recently developed a novel design strategy for synthesizing various forms of functional materials, especially for metal-organic materials (MOMs).

The research team expects that this synthetic approach might open up a new direction for the development of diverse forms in MOMs, with highly advanced areas such as sequential drug delivery/release and heterogeneous cascade catalysis targeted in the foreseeable future.

A Jan. 6, 2017 UNIST press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In the last decades, much research has been developed to the synthesis and design of functional materials, but only a few of them could control the walls of the interior of the particles within the nanoporous materials.

In the study, Professor Choe and his team denomstrated sequential self-assembly strategy for synthesizing various forms of MOM crystals, including double-shell hollow MOMs, based on single-crystal to single-crystal transformation from MOP to MOF.

Schematic representation of various forms of micro-/nanostructures. From left are Solid, core-shell, hollow, matryoshka, yolk-shell and multi-shell hollow structures.

Porous materials are highly utilized as catalysts or gas capture materials because they supply abundant surface active sites for chemical reaction. Although materials, like Zeolites, which can be obtained from nature, have the ability to act as catalysts for chemical reactions, they suffer from the difficulty of controlling pore sizes and shapes.

As one solution, scientists have developed self-assembled porous materials using organic molecules and metals. Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) and Metal-Organic Polyhedral (MOPs) are notable examples and they both have holes all over their surfaces. MOPs dissolve easily in chemical solvent, while MOFs are practically insoluble.

“MOFs take the form of three-dimensional (3D) structure, linking metals with organic molecules, while MOPs agglomerate together to form larger clusters,” says Jiyoung Lee, the first contributor of the study and a graduate student in the combined master-doctoral program from Chemistry department.

Schematic illustration of form evolution.

Schematic illustration of form evolution.

According to the research team, this synthetic strategy also yields other forms, such as solid, core-shell, double and triple matryoshka, and single-shell hollow MOMs, thereby exhibiting form evolution in MOMs.

“The best feature of this technique is that it allows two very different substances to coexist within a single crystal,” says Professor Choe. “This technique also permits greater control over size and shape of the pore, which can be then used to regulate the entrance and exit of molecules.”

This particular synthetic approach also has the potential to generate new type of porous materials containing micropores with diameters less than 2nm, macropores with diameters between 20 to 50nm, as well as pores of larger than 50 nm. Such hierarchical pore structure plays a critical role during catalysis, adsorption, and separation processes.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Evolution of form in metal–organic frameworks by Jiyoung Lee, Ja Hun Kwak & Wonyoung Choe. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14070 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14070 Published online: 04 January 2017

This is an open access paper.

Making diesel cleaner

A Dec. 10, 2015 news item on Nanowerk announces a new method for producing diesel fuels (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from KU Leuven [Belgium] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] have discovered a new approach to the production of fuels (Nature, “Nanoscale intimacy in bifunctional catalysts for selective conversion of hydrocarbons”). Their new method can be used to produce much cleaner diesel. It can quickly be scaled up for industrial use. In 5 to 10 years, we may see the first cars driven by this new clean diesel.

A Dec. 10, 2015 KU Leuven press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The production of fuel involves the use of catalysts. These substances trigger the chemical reactions that convert raw material into fuel. In the case of diesel, small catalyst granules are added to the raw material to sufficiently change the molecules of the raw material to produce useable fuel.

Catalysts can have one or more chemical functions. The catalyst that was used for this particular study has two functions, represented by two different materials: a metal (platinum) and a solid-state acid. During the production process for diesel, the molecules bounce to and fro between the metal and the acid. Each time a molecule comes into contact with one of the materials, it changes a little bit. At the end of the process, the molecules are ready to be used for diesel fuel.

The assumption has always been that the metal and the solid-state acid in the catalyst should be as close together as possible. That would speed up the production process by helping the molecules bounce to and fro more quickly. Professor Johan Martens (KU Leuven) and Professor Krijn de Jong (Utrecht University) have now discovered that this assumption is incorrect. [emphasis mine] If the functions within a catalyst are nanometres apart, the process yields better molecules for cleaner fuel.

“Our results are the exact opposite of what we had expected. At first, we thought that the samples had been switched or that something was wrong with our analysis”, says Professor Martens. “We repeated the experiments three times, only to arrive at the same conclusion: the current theory is wrong. There has to be a minimum distance between the functions within a catalyst. This goes against what the industry has been doing for the past 50 years.”

The new technique can optimise quite a few molecules in diesel. Cars that are driven by this clean diesel would emit far fewer particulates and CO². The researchers believe that their method can be scaled up for industrial use with relative ease, so the new diesel could be used in cars in 5 to 10 years.

The new technique can be applied to petroleum-based fuels, but also to renewable carbon from biomass.

A fifty year old assumption has been found wrong. Interesting, non? In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanoscale intimacy in bifunctional catalysts for selective conversion of hydrocarbons by Jovana Zecevic, Gina Vanbutsele, Krijn P. de Jong, & Johan A. Martens. Nature 528, 245–248 (10 December 2015)  doi:10.1038/nature16173 Published online 09 December 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Combining gold and palladium for catalytic and plasmonic octopods

Hopefully I did not the change meaning when I made the title for this piece more succinct. In any event, this research comes from the always prolific Rice University in Texas, US (from a Nov. 30, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now),

Catalysts are substances that speed up chemical reactions and are essential to many industries, including petroleum, food processing and pharmaceuticals. Common catalysts include palladium and platinum, both found in cars’ catalytic converters. Plasmons are waves of electrons that oscillate in particles, usually metallic, when excited by light. Plasmonic metals like gold and silver can be used as sensors in biological applications and for chemical detection, among others.

Plasmonic materials are not the best catalysts, and catalysts are typically very poor for plasmonics. But combining them in the right way shows promise for industrial and scientific applications, said Emilie Ringe, a Rice assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry who led the study that appears in Scientific Reports.

“Plasmonic particles are magnets for light,” said Ringe, who worked on the project with colleagues in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany. “They couple with light and create big electric fields that can drive chemical processes. By combining these electric fields with a catalytic surface, we could further push chemical reactions. That’s why we’re studying how palladium and gold can be incorporated together.”

The researchers created eight-armed specks of gold and coated them with a gold-palladium alloy. The octopods proved to be efficient catalysts and sensors.

A Nov. 30, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“If you simply mix gold and palladium, you may end up with a bad plasmonic material and a pretty bad catalyst, because palladium does not attract light like gold does,” Ringe said. “But our particles have gold cores with palladium at the tips, so they retain their plasmonic properties and the surfaces are catalytic.”

Just as important, Ringe said, the team established characterization techniques that will allow scientists to tune application-specific alloys that report on their catalytic activity in real time.

The researchers analyzed octopods with a variety of instruments, including Rice’s new Titan Themis microscope, one of the most powerful electron microscopes in the nation. “We confirmed that even though we put palladium on a particle, it’s still capable of doing everything that a similar gold shape would do. That’s really a big deal,” she said.

“If you shine a light on these nanoparticles, it creates strong electric fields. Those fields enhance the catalysis, but they also report on the catalysis and the molecules present at the surface of the particles,” Ringe said.

The researchers used electron energy loss spectroscopy, cathodoluminescence and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to make 3-D maps of the electric fields produced by exciting the plasmons. They found that strong fields were produced at the palladium-rich tips, where plasmons were the least likely to be excited.

Ringe expects further research will produce multifunctional nanoparticles in a variety of shapes that can be greatly refined for applications. Her own Rice lab is working on a metal catalyst to turn inert petroleum derivatives into backbone molecules for novel drugs.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Resonances of nanoparticles with poor plasmonic metal tips by Emilie Ringe, Christopher J. DeSantis, Sean M. Collins, Martial Duchamp, Rafal E. Dunin-Borkowski, Sara E. Skrabalak, & Paul A. Midgley.  Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 17431 (2015)  doi:10.1038/srep17431 Published online: 30 November 2015

This is an open access paper,

Platinum catalysts and their shortcomings

The problem boils down to the fact that platinum isn’t cheap and so US Dept. of Energy research laboratories are looking for alternatives to or ways of making more efficient use of platinum according to a June 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Visions of dazzling engagement rings may pop to mind when platinum is mentioned, but a significant share of the nearly half a million pounds of the rare metalExternal link [sic] mined each year ends up in vehicle emission systems and chemical manufacturing plants. The silvery white metal speeds up or enhances reactions, a role scientists call serving as a catalyst, and platinum is fast and efficient performing this function.

Because of its outstanding performance as a catalyst, platinum plays a major role in fuel cells. Inside a fuel cell, tiny platinum particles break apart hydrogen fuel to create electricity. Leftover protons are combined with oxygen ions to create pure water.

Fuel cells could let scientists turn wind into fuel. Right now, electricity generated by wind turbines is not stored. If that energy could be converted into hydrogen to power fuel cells, it would turn a sporadic source into a continuous one.

The problem is the platinum – a scarce and costly metal. Scientists funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science are seeing if something more readily available, such as iron or nickel, could catalyze the reaction.

But, earth-abundant metals cannot simply be used in place of platinum and other rare metals. Each metal works differently at the atomic level. It takes basic research to understand the interactions and use that knowledge to create the right catalysts.

A June 15, 2015 US Department of Energy Office of Science news release, which originated the news item, describes various efforts,

At the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center, scientists are gaining new understanding of catalysts based on common metals and how they move protons, the positively charged, oft-ignored counterpart to the electron.

Center Director Morris Bullock and his colleagues showed that protons’ ability to move through the catalyst greatly influences the catalyst’s speed and efficiency. Protons move via relays — clusters of atoms that convey protons to or from the active site of catalysts, where the reaction of interest occurs. The constitution, placement, and number of relays can let a reaction zip along or grind to a halt. Bullock and his colleagues are creating “design guidelines” for building relays.

Further, the team is expanding the guidelines to examine proton movement related to the solutions and surfaces where the catalyst resides. For example, matching the proton-donating abilityExternal link [sic] of a nickel-based catalyst to that of the surrounding liquid, much like matching your clothing choice with the event you’re attending, eases protons’ travels. The benefit? Speed. A coordinated catalyst pumped out 96,000 hydrogen molecules a second — compared to just 27,000 molecules a second without the adjustment.

This and other research at the Energy Frontier Research Center is funded by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The Center is led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

At two other labs, research shows how changing the catalyst’s superstructure, which contains the proton relays and wraps around the active site, can also increase the speed of the reaction. Led by Argonne National Lab’s Vojislav Stamenkovic and Berkeley Lab’s Peidong Yang, researchers created hollow platinum and nickel nanoparticles, a thousand times smaller in diameter than a human hair. The 12-sided particles split oxygen molecules into charged oxygen ions, a reaction that’s needed in fuel cells. The new catalyst is far more active and uses far less platinum than conventional platinum-carbon catalysts.

Building the catalysts begins with tiny structures made of platinum and nickel held in solution. Oxygen from the air dissolves into the liquid and selectively etches away some of the nickel atoms. The result is a hollow framework with a highly active platinum skin over the surface. The open design of the catalyst allows the oxygen to easily access the platinum. The new catalyst has a 36-fold increase in activity compared to traditional platinum–carbon catalysts. Further, the new hollow structure continues to work far longer in operating fuel cells than traditional catalysts.

I think we’re entering the ‘slow’ season newswise so there are likely to be more of these ’roundup’ pieces being circulated in the online nanosciencesphere and, consequently, here. too.

Canadian and Japanese researchers create new technique for using iron nanoparticles in greener hydrogenation process

McGill University’s Audrey Moores and her team’s latest green chemistry work with researchers at RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Wako, Japan) and the Institute for Molecular Science (Okazaki, Japan) is featured in a June 27, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from McGill University, RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Wako, Japan) and the Institute for Molecular Science (Okazaki, Japan) have discovered a way to make the widely used chemical process of hydrogenation more environmentally friendly – and less expensive.

Hydrogenation is a chemical process used in a wide range of industrial applications, from food products, such as margarine, to petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. The process typically involves the use of heavy metals, such as palladium or platinum, to catalyze the chemical reaction. While these metals are very efficient catalysts, they are also non-renewable, costly, and subject to sharp price fluctuations on international markets.

Because these metals are also toxic, even in small quantities, they also raise environmental and safety concerns. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, must use expensive purification methods to limit residual levels of these elements in pharmaceutical products. Iron, by contrast, is both naturally abundant and far less toxic than heavy metals.

Previous work by other researchers has shown that iron nanoparticles — tiny pieces of metallic iron — can be used to activate the hydrogenation reaction. Iron, however, has a well-known drawback: it rusts in the presence of oxygen or water. When rusted, iron nanoparticles stop acting as hydrogenation catalysts. This problem, which occurs with so much as trace quantities of water, has prevented iron nanoparticles from being used in industry.

The June 27, 2013 McGill University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides details about the new technique,

The key to this new method is to produce the particles directly inside a polymer matrix, composed of amphiphilic polymers based on polystyrene and polyethylene glycol. The polymer acts as a wrapping film that protects the iron surface from rusting in the presence of water, while allowing the reactants to reach the water and react.

This innovation enabled the researchers to use iron nanoparticles as catalyst in a flow system, raising the possibility that iron could be used to replace platinum-series metals for hydrogenation under industrial conditions.

“Our research is now focused on achieving a better understanding of how the polymers are protecting the surface of the iron from water, while at the same time allowing the iron to interact with the substrate,” says Audrey Moores, an assistant professor of chemistry at McGill and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“The approach we have developed through this collaboration could lead to more sustainable industrial processes,” says Prof. Uozumi [Prof. Yasuhiro Uozumi of Riken]. “This technique provides a system in which the reaction can happen over and over with the same small amount of a catalytic material, and it enables it to take place in almost pure water — the green solvent par excellence.”

I last wrote about greener chemistry and iron nanoparticles in a March 28, 2012 posting concerning some work at the University of Toronto while the last time McGill, green chemistry, and Audrey Moores were mentioned here was in a Jan. 10, 2011 posting concerning ‘nanomagnetics.

For those who are interested in this latest work from McGill, here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

Highly efficient iron(0) nanoparticle-catalyzed hydrogenation in water in flow by Reuben Hudson, Go Hamasaka, Takao Osako, Yoichi M. A. Yamada, Chao-Jun Li, Yasuhiro Uozumi, and Audrey Moores.
Green Chem., 2013, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C3GC40789F

First published online 27 Jun 2013

This paper is behind a paywall.

Get the platinum out

They’ve been using platinum catalysts, in fuel cells and metal-air batteries, which over the last five years has ranged in cost from just under $800/oz to over $2200/oz. My March 13, 2012 posting about fuel cells noted that the use of expensive metals that are not very efficient catalysts was holding back their development and entry into the marketplace,

Advances in fuel-cell technology have been stymied by the inadequacy of metals studied as catalysts. The drawback to platinum, other than cost, is that it absorbs carbon monoxide in reactions involving fuel cells powered by organic materials like formic acid. A more recently tested metal, palladium, breaks down over time.

Now chemists at Brown University have created a triple-headed metallic nanoparticle that they say outperforms and outlasts all others at the anode end in formic-acid fuel-cell reactions.

Another group of researchers at Stanford University and other institutions is suggesting an alternative to a platinum catalyst, a multi-walled carbon nanotube. From the May 27, 2012 news release written by Mark Shwartz on EurekAlert,

Multi-walled carbon nanotubes riddled with defects and impurities on the outside could replace some of the expensive platinum catalysts used in fuel cells and metal-air batteries, according to scientists at Stanford University. Their findings are published in the May 27 online edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

“Platinum is very expensive and thus impractical for large-scale commercialization,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford and co-author of the study. “Developing a low-cost alternative has been a major research goal for several decades.”

For the study, the Stanford team used multi-walled carbon nanotubes consisting of two or three concentric tubes nested together. The scientists showed that shredding the outer wall, while leaving the inner walls intact, enhances catalytic activity in nanotubes, yet does not interfere with their ability to conduct electricity.

“A typical carbon nanotube has few defects,” said Yanguang Li, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and lead author of the study. “But defects are actually important to promote the formation of catalytic sites and to render the nanotube very active for catalytic reactions.”

Here’s how it works, from the May 27, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

For the study, Li and his co-workers treated multi-walled nanotubes in a chemical solution. Microscopic analysis revealed that the treatment caused the outer nanotube to partially unzip and form nanosized graphene pieces that clung to the inner nanotube, which remained mostly intact.

“We found that adding a few iron and nitrogen impurities made the outer wall very active for catalytic reactions,” Dai said. “But the inside maintained its integrity, providing a path for electrons to move around. You want the outside to be very active, but you still want to have good electrical conductivity. If you used a single-wall carbon nanotube you wouldn’t have this advantage, because the damage on the wall would degrade the electrical property.”

These are two different perspectives on the reason for why fuel cells and other batteries have not had the expected impact on the marketplace. The team at Brown University states the problem as an issue with the effectiveness of the metal catalysts where the Stanford-led team states the problem as being the cost of the metal used. Dexter Johnson in a March 9, 2012 posting on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website suggested a third issue,

One of the fundamental problems with fuel cells has been the cost of producing hydrogen. While hydrogen is, of course, the most abundant element, it attaches itself to other elements like nitrogen or fluorine, and perhaps most ubiquitously to oxygen to create the water molecule. The process used to separate hydrogen out into hydrogen gas for powering fuel cells now relies on electricity produced from fossil fuels, negating some of the potential environmental benefits.

In his May 30, 2012 posting about this new work from Stanford, Dexter notes yet another issue impeding widespread commercialization,

… but the two main issues that have prevented fuel cells from gaining wider adoption—at least in the area of powering automobiles—are the costs of isolating hydrogen and building an infrastructure that would deliver that hydrogen to the automobiles.

Dexter mentions another application (metal-air batteries) that may benefit more from this latest work (from Dexter’s May 30, 2012 posting),

I think it’s all together possible that researchers at IBM and the US national labs who have been working on metal-air batteries for years now might be somewhat more interested in this line of research than fuel-cell manufacturers.

As one of the researchers notes (from the May 27, 2012 news release on EurekAlert),

“Lithium-air batteries are exciting because of their ultra-high theoretical energy density, which is more than 10 times higher than today’s best lithium ion technology,” Dai said. “But one of the stumbling blocks to development has been the lack of a high-performance, low-cost catalyst. Carbon nanotubes could be an excellent alternative to the platinum, palladium and other precious-metal catalysts now in use.”

The Stanford team made one other discovery as they were testing the carbon nanotubes,

The Stanford study might also have resolved a long-standing scientific controversy about the chemical structure of catalytic active sites where oxygen reactions occur. “One group of scientists believes that iron impurities are bonded to nitrogen at the active site,” Li said. “Another group believes that iron contributes virtually nothing, except to promote active sites made entirely of nitrogen.”

To address the controversy, the Stanford team enlisted scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to conduct atomic-scale imaging and spectroscopy analysis of the nanotubes. The results showed clear, visual evidence of iron and nitrogen atoms in close proximity.

“For the first time, we were able to image individual atoms on this kind of catalyst,” Dai said. “All of the images showed iron and nitrogen close together, suggesting that the two elements are bonded. This kind of imaging is possible, because the graphene pieces are just one-atom thick.”

Dai noted that the iron impurities, which enhanced catalytic activity, actually came from metal seeds that were used to make the nanotubes and were not intentionally added by the scientists. The discovery of these accidental yet invaluable bits of iron offered the researchers an important lesson. “We learned that metal impurities in nanotubes must not be ignored,” Dai said.

Greener catalysts with iron nanoparticles

A research team at the University of Toronto has announced the discovery of a possible ‘green’ alternative to commonly used catalysts in the food, drug, and fragrance industries. From the March 27, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

A chemistry team at the University of Toronto has discovered environmentally-friendly iron-based nanoparticle catalysts that work as well as the expensive, toxic, metal-based catalysts that are currently in wide use by the drug, fragrance and food industry.

“It is always important to strive to make industrial syntheses more green, and using iron catalysts is not only much less toxic, but it is also much more cost effective,” said Jessica Sonnenberg, a PhD student and lead author of a paper published this week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (“Iron Nanoparticles Catalyzing the Asymmetric Transfer Hydrogenation of Ketones”).

The March 27, 2012 University of Toronto news release provides a quote from Sonnenberg which suggests there’s still a lot more work to be done before the toxic metal-based catalysts currently being used could be replaced,

… “Catalysts, even cheap iron ones developed for these types of reaction, still suffer one major downfall,” explained Sonnenberg.  “They require a one-to-one ratio of very expensive organic ligands – the molecule that binds to the central metal atom of a chemical compound – to yield catalytic activity. Our discovery of functional surface nanoparticles opens the door to using much smaller ratios of these expensive compounds relative to the metal centres.  This drastically reduces the overall cost of the transformations.”

This work at the University of Toronto reminded me of another team also working on green catalysts for chemical reactions and also based in Canada, this time at McGill University. The McGill team lead by Chao-Jun Li was mentioned most recently here in a Jan. 10, 2011 posting where their ‘nanomagnetics’ technology to replace the current toxic catalysts  is described.

Interview with Vive Nano’s CTO, Darren Anderson, and CEO Keith Thomas

I first mentioned the Canadian company, Vive Nano, in my Nov. 9, 2009 posting when it received $3.8M from the Ontario government through that province’s Innovation Demonstration Fund. They’ve been mentioned here since (June 25, 2010 posting about their Frost & Sullivan Technology Innovation Award and Oct. 11, 2010 posting about their marketing efforts in India) and, after my good intentions ran out, I finally got a chance to interview Darren Anderson, Vive Nano’s  Chief Technology Officer and (ETA Mar.1.11) Keith Thomas, President and Chief Executive Officer.

(a) Can you tell me a little bit about why the company is called Vive Nano and give me a brief company history, e.g. was it a spin-off from a university; how many founders are there; how did you get to know each other, etc.?

The company was founded by 6 scientists at the University of Toronto.  The scientists had been working together for years and a number had participated in a course called Entrepreneurship 101, which is run by an Ontario-funded organization called MaRS.  [You can find MaRS here.] We decided to pursue a non-traditional route, instead of joining academia or a research lab – and we have not looked back since.  We spun the company out of the university in 2006 and it really got going in 2007 when the full management team joined and outside investment was brought in.

We chose the name Vive Nano because we felt it would work well across cultures.  When we heard the word vive we thought of life; we felt that it had a strong, vibrant and forward thinking feel.   And we felt that it mirrored our company values:  smart, open and responsible.  We strive to be smart in how we execute our work, open to new ideas and responsible in the application of what we do for the greater good.

(b) The Vive Nano website states that your main focus is developing products for the ‘catalyst’ and ‘crop protection’ industries. Could you give me a little more detail about that? For example, I associate crop protection with pesticides, is that what you mean?

A large part of our work is on improved crop protection formulations that can positively impact crop yields and lower environmental impact.  We work with bioinert and biodegradable polymers in place of the solvents currently used to deliver crop protection products.  We are developing products, including pesticides that have the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals used by farmers, leading to cleaner air, cleaner soil and cleaner water.  We’re enthusiastic about working in crop protection because the safety standards are very stringent and we’re working with partners with tremendous resources and commitment to ensuring product safety.  Vive Nano also works with catalysts, specifically on materials that help to improve the air we breathe and water we drink.

For our efforts, Vive Nano has been recognized as one of Canada’s Top 10 companies, as a leading green technology company by Deloitte, as one of the 2009 Green 15™, and by Canadian Business magazine as the winner of Canada’s Clean15 competition.  In addition, Vive Nano has received other market recognition including:

·       Frost & Sullivan North American Technology of the Year Award – 2010
·       Next 10 Emerging Cleantech Leaders Award Winner – 2009
·       Ontario Premier’s Cleantech Mission to India

(c)  ‘Partnering on projects’ is also mentioned on the website. Could you explain how what you mean by partnering and what kinds of projects and products you have or are currently partnering on?

Vive Nano partners with a range of companies, from small Ontario businesses to Fortune 500 firms.  We develop the products in conjunction with our partners, who provide project goals and market access.  We are not able to talk about most of our projects, but one of our key projects is to reduce the use of solvents in delivering crop protection products so that the products are more environmentally friendly.  We also have smaller projects to develop advanced glass coatings and to clean water.

(d) The website features a description of Vive Nano Product Stewardship where you state: “… prioritization process to ensure product information for products with known toxic effects, physical hazards or potential consumer exposure is provided to our stakeholders in a timely manner.” Could you give some examples of you how provide this information since you sell products such as nano silver, nano cerium oxide, nano zinc oxide, and nano magnetite, all of which, by the way, are subject to a ‘call for information regarding testing procedures’ by the State of California’s Dept. of Toxic Substances Control.

We are members of Responsible Care® and are committed communicating information about our materials to all of our stakeholders, including our employees, our customers, our collaborators and the general public.   We make Product Stewardship Sheets for our materials available, which provide a product description, the chemical identity, uses, and any known health or environmental effects or potential for exposure, as well as risk management information.

We recognize that the state of knowledge relating to health and environmental effects of nanotechnology is in its infancy and as a result we are taking a conservative approach with respect to the design and manufacture of our materials. We continually monitor legislative requirements regarding nanomaterials and aim to exceed all current guidelines with respect to occupational health and waste streams, including water and air emissions.  Much of the concern surrounding exposure to nanomaterials is regarding aerosols, thus we endeavour to work with our materials in liquid form whenever possible.

As I mentioned at the start, we want to be responsible in what we do for the greater good.  We are working with the Canadian National Institute of Nanotechnology in Alberta on a federally funded multi-million dollar project to ensure that all of our products we develop are safe throughout their product lifetime.  We are also participating in a McGill University study to look at product safety.

I’m going to shift focus with these next questions:

(e) Vive Nano was featured in an Oct. 27, 2010 guest column written by Hari Venkatacharya on the subject of Canadian technology firms and the Indian market. Is this involvement part of a larger strategic focus on international markets and/or where there specific reasons for focusing on the Indian market?

Cleantech is global, by nature.  For several years, we have been working internationally, though mostly focused on developed economies.  A few years ago, when developed economies were having issues with the recession, we made a strategic decision to work with a key developing economy and chose India.  There was a sound business case and good demand for our products.  We also were able to successfully work with Hari to access top level decision makers in that market.

(f) What have you learned from your work in the Indian market?

First, focus is important.  India is too vast, so we don’t have an India strategy, but rather a Maharashtra strategy.  Second, cost is important.  India really forced us to drive down our costs – the economics in India are based on volume, not margin.

We also found it important to put things in writing – as prep or follow-up to phone calls, as we had some significant noise issues, especially with poor quality phone lines.  We had a number of times where we would speak to someone on their cellphone in traffic and have difficulty picking out enough words to understand what they meant.

Lastly, we found we needed to be there, in almost constant contact in person.  We found that progress came in waves.  If you were about to go to India, were there, or had just left, there was progress; otherwise other priorities came to our customers’ minds.  We were just one of probably dozens of opportunities from Germany, France, and the US that kept coming to them.  SO we needed to go back.  And back.

(g) What kind of a market (or markets) is there for your products in Canada?

As I mentioned, a lot of our work is on making better crop protection products.  These will support the $150 billion Canadian agriculture industry, which employs one out of every seven Canadians.  We anticipate that they will result in significant environmental and waste reduction benefits.  We are also working on coatings to improve the energy efficiency of glass and improved catalysts can potentially deliver major advances in water and air purification. Canada has an environmentally-aware population and a desire to be a leader in clean technologies, so we think it’s a great place to be.

(h) Are you working on any new products or partnerships that you can discuss at this point?

One thing that we are very excited about is our anti-reflective glass coating.  It can improve light transmission noticeably.  It is a very different application from our crop protection work, but uses the same underlying technology.

(i) Is there anything you’d like to add?

Nothing I can think of.

I would like to add just a bit more about Darren Anderson. From Vive Nano’s Management Team page,

Darren Anderson, Ph.D. was the founding President of Vive Nano. Dr. Anderson currently oversees all technical direction at the company, including product development, strategic direction, and intellectual property. He is the author of 4 issued patents, 24 pending applications, 10 refereed papers, and over 40 conference presentations and publications. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto as an NSERC Doctoral Fellow.

Plus, I want to say Thank You for taking the time to answer my questions in detail that I much appreciate. I look forward to hearing more about Vive Nano in general, about the new glass coating product, and about the product safety projects with Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology and with the researchers at McGill soon.

ETA Feb.28.11: I understand from Darren Anderson that Keith Thomas, Vive Nano’s President and CEO answered some of the questions. So, thank you to Keith Thomas. Here’s his biography from Vive Nano’s Management Team web page,

Keith Thomas is a proven entrepreneur and was most recently CEO of Vector Innovations, which was backed by a number of well regarded venture firms and successfully exited. He has led a number of large-scale projects, restructuring companies in 3 countries at New York-based Tandon Capital, managing strategy and operations projects at Booz Allen & Hamilton and completing corporate finance transactions at Citibank in the US and Europe. He is a member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and holds an M.B.A. from Columbia University, an M.A. in Economics and a B.A.Sc. in Engineering from the University of Toronto.