Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory have discovered a metal-free carbon-based catalyst that has potential to be much less expensive and more efficient for many industrial concerns, including manufacturing of bio- and fossil fuels and fuel cells.

The scientists performed experiments with a type of heterogeneous catalyst, Nitrogen-Assembly Carbons (NACs), in which the design and placement of nitrogen on the carbon surface greatly influenced the catalytic activity of the material. 

The nitrogen atoms on carbon surfaces were previously believed to be distant from one another, as the close placement of nitrogen atoms is thermodynamically unstable.

Ames Lab researchers correlated the nitrogen precursors and pyrolysis temperature for the NACs synthesis with the nitrogen distribution and discovered that meta-table nitrogen assemblies can be made by design and deliver unexpected catalytic reactions.

 “We discovered that how the nitrogen was distributed on the surface of these NACs really mattered, and in the process realised that this was an entirely new kind of chemical activity,” said Ames Laboratory Associate Scientist Long Qi.

“The discovery should enable scientists to design nitrogen assemblies that are able to accomplish more sophisticated and challenging chemical transformations without the need for transition metals” said Ames Laboratory scientist Wenyu Huang.

“It broadly applies to many different types of chemical conversions and industries.”