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In chemical reactions, water adds speed without heat
Date:5/21/2012

their research, Mavrikakis and Besenbacher drew on their respective theoretical and experimental expertise to study metal oxides, a class of materials often used as catalysts or catalyst supports. They found that the presence of even the most minute amounts of wateron the order of those in an outer-space vacuumcan accelerate the diffusion of hydrogen atoms on iron oxide by 16 orders of magnitude at room temperature. In other words, water makes hydrogen diffuse 10,000 trillion times faster on metal oxides than it would have diffused in the absence of water. Without water, heat is needed to speed up that motion.

Besenbacher and his colleagues have one of the world's fastest scanning tunneling microscopes, which has atomic-scale resolution. With it, they could see how quickly hydrogen atoms diffused across iron oxide in the presence of water.

To explain the fundamental mechanisms of how that happened, Mavrikakis and his team used quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that explains the behavior of matter on the atomic scale; and massively parallel computing. Essentially, when water is present, hydrogen diffuses via a proton transfer, or proton "hopping," mechanism, in which hydrogen atoms from the oxide surface jump onto nearby water molecules and make hydronium ions, which then deliver their extra proton to the oxide surface and liberate a water molecule. That repeated process leads to rapid hydrogen atom diffusion on the oxide surface.

It's a process that doesn't happen willy-nilly, either. The researchers also showed that when they roll out the proverbial red carpeta nanoscale "path" templated with hydrogen atomson iron oxide, the water will find that path, stay on it, and keep moving. The discovery could be relevant in nanoscale precision applications mediated by water, such as nanofluidics, nanotube sensors, and transfer across biological membranes, among others.


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Contact: Manos Mavrikakis
manos@engr.wisc.edu
608-262-9053
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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