Electrocatalyst design from first principles: A hydrogen-production catalyst inspired by nature

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Sustainable economic production of hydrogen from water and sunlight is an attractive goal. It requires an active electrocatalyst comprised of earth-abundant elements. Such a catalyst exists in nature, the [FeFe] H cluster in the active site of the di-iron hydrogenase enzymes. To reach the required specific activity within an actual solar hydrogen-production system, the catalytically active site must, figuratively, be stripped from the enzyme, attached to a cathode or photocathode, and immersed in water. Thus modifications of the composition and structure of the cluster are to be found which allow for stable attachment to the electrode surface and for maintenance of its integrity and activity throughout the H2-producing cycle in an environment drastically different from that in the enzyme. We have addressed that problem by simulating the behavior of model clusters by first-principles electronic-structure and molecular-dynamics simulations. We review our studies, first of the [FeFe]H cluster in vacuum; next of the [FeFe] H cluster in water; then of a systematic sequence of modifications which culminates with the design of the successful phosphorous-substituted [FeFe]P cluster; and, finally, an investigation of the H2 producing cycle of [FeFe]P. We then discuss the limitations of our results and conclude with a brief consideration of future directions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-170
Number of pages11
JournalCatalysis Today
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 16 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Catalysis
  • General Chemistry


  • Electrocatalysis
  • First principles molecular dynamics
  • Hydrogen production


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