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R. Morris Bullock. (PNNL Photo)

Anyone who has shopped for a ring knows that platinum doesn’t come cheap. Existing fuel cells rely on this precious metal as the catalyst to convert hydrogen into electricity, increasing the cost of fuel cells and limiting their potential reach as a source of energy.

But what if the catalyst could be a cheaper metal, such as iron?

That’s exactly what R. Morris Bullock and his team at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have figured out. A synthetic molecule developed by the team is the first iron-based catalyst to efficiently split hydrogen gas into the pieces needed to create electricity.

The researchers — Bullock and fellow chemists Tianbiao “Leo” Liu and Dan DuBois — published their findings this month in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Bullock is careful to point out that this is basic research, which hasn’t been tested in a real fuel cell. However, their work has the long-term potential to help make fuel cells much cheaper and more widespread — a key step to meet the rising worldwide demand for affordable energy.

“I’ve been a cheapskate for a long time,” Bullock jokes. “I’m just trying to make it respectable.”

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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Meet our latest Geek of the Week, and continue reading for edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did you get into this field in the first place? When I was taking chemistry in high school, I just thought that chemistry was really interesting, and I just stuck with it. Sometimes people think chemistry is so dreadful, but I always tell them, it actually gets more interesting after freshman chemistry, if you just hang in there. It’s fascinated me ever since, and I’ve been very happy doing this kind of research.

What’s the underlying need for alternative fuel cell catalysts? Platinum as the catalyst in fuel cells is a terrific catalyst. It’s just great. The problem is it’s terribly expensive. There’s not very much of it, and as a consequence, it’s very expensive. What we want to do is develop catalysts based on metals that are Earth-abundant. What we really are seeking is a way to have fuel cells and that way of generating electricity to be used more widely. If we’re going to adopt it on a huge scale, there’s just not enough platinum to go around. That’s why we’re researching how we can get cheap metals like iron and nickel to be usable as a catalyst.

How does iron compare to platinum as a catalyst in fuel cells?What we’ve done is basic research that shows that this iron complex that we’ve made is a good electrocatalyst for oxidation. But we’ve just done the basic research. These fundamental studies show us that it has good efficiency, but what we haven’t done is actually put it into a fuel cell to test it. This is something that would need to be developed further. The thing that we’re excited about is the fact that we have shown that this iron catalyst will oxidize hydrogen electrochemically. We’re at the very front end of this kind of research.

Tianbiao “Leo” Liu is credited with the key work creating the potential molecules for the team  to test.

Where do you find your inspiration?I want to work on something that is going to make a difference in the world, eventually. The problems that we are working on, we think are really profound issues that need a solution. Trying to find secure energy and sustainable energy is a problem that’s important for all of us. That’s where I get some of the excitement — trying to work on something that can make a difference in the world. We’re doing basic research, we’re not at the engineering end of implementing it, but it is something that keeps us motivated when we realize this is not only interesting chemistry but is something that has a role in making a difference in a secure energy future.

What’s the one piece of technology that you couldn’t live without? Probably the computer that sits on my desk here.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Oh, I’m definitely a Mac type.

I assumed everybody in the lab would be on Windows or Linux. Probably more people use Windows here, but among people who do academic research, there’s a lot of Mac users. In the lab, when we have instruments that are collecting data, they’re all PCs, they just have to be, there’s just not enough Mac programs for those to work, but I definitely am a hard-core Mac user and have been for more than 20 years.

Current phone: iPhone 4S

Favorite apps: Good is this program that I can use to check my work email on my iPhone, because I’ve got some security things that are required. Another one that I like is Zite. It comes up with all kinds of interesting articles that I don’t see on the regular news websites that I read.

Bullock’s colleague Dan DuBois

Who are your role models? My dad, for always being dedicated to working hard and being honest. And Dan DuBois, my colleague here, for being somebody who is always thinking carefully about how to solve problems, and thinking creatively.

What are your long-term aspirations for your work? We are hoping that not just the specific catalysts that we design might be pushed forward towards actually being implemented to help in energy problems, but in a broader sense, we’re hoping that the scientific discoveries that we make, and the way we think about designing catalysts —these principles that we’re trying to develop — will help other scientists to be able to develop catalysts in a rational way.

Bullock is director of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The center is one of the Energy Frontier Research Centers created by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for basic research in energy. See this PNNL article for more details on the research.

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