New approach could spur green technologies

January 23rd, 2012 - 6:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 23 (IANS) A new approach to chemical reactions between water and metal oxides, the most abundant minerals on our planet, could prompt faster development of “green” technologies.

It could not only lead to a better understanding of corrosion and how toxic minerals leach from rocks and soil, but also help create new types of batteries or cutting edge catalysts for hydrogen cell.

“This is a global change in how people should view these processes,” said William Casey, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis.

Casey co-authored the study with James Rustad, former geology professor at the same university, who now works as a scientist at Corning Inc. in New York.

Previously, when studying the interactions of water with clusters of metal oxides, researchers tried to pick and study individual atoms to assess their reactivity. But “none of it really made sense,” Rustad said, the journal Nature Materials reports.

Using computer simulations developed by Rustad, and comparing the resulting animations with lab experiments by Casey, the two found that the behaviour of an atom on the surface of the cluster can be affected by an atom some distance away, according to a California statement.

Instead of moving through a sequence of transitional forms, as had been assumed, metal oxides interacting with water fall into a variety of “metastable states” — short-lived intermediates, the researchers found.

For example, in one of Rustad’s animations, a water molecule approaches an oxygen atom on the surface of a cluster. The oxygen suddenly pulls away from another atom binding it into the middle of the cluster and leaps to the water molecule.

Then the structure collapses back into place, ejecting a spare oxygen atom and incorporating the new one. The US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation sponsored the research.

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