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The team, which also includes Penn State graduate students Patrick Roach and Hunter Woodward and Virginia Commonwealth University Professor of Physics Shiv Khanna and postdoctoral associate Arthur Reber, investigated the reactions of water with individual aluminum clusters by combining them under controlled conditions in a custom-designed flow-reactor. They found that a water molecule will bind between two aluminum sites in a cluster as long as one of the sites behaves like a Lewis acid, a positively charged center that wants to accept an electron, and the other behaves like a Lewis base, a negatively charged center that wants to give away an electron. The Lewis-acid aluminum binds to the oxygen in the water and the Lewis-base aluminum dissociates a hydrogen atom. If this process happens a second time with another set of two aluminum sites and a water molecule, then two hydrogen atoms are available, which then can join to become hydrogen gas (H2).
The team found that the aluminum clusters react differently when exposed to water, depending on the sizes of the clusters and their unique geometric structures. Three of the aluminum clusters produced hydrogen from water at room temperature. "The ability to produce hydrogen at room temperature is significant because it means that we did not use any heat or energy to trigger the reaction," said Khanna. "Traditional techniques for splitting water to produce hydrogen generally require a lot of energy at the time the hydrogen is generated. But our method allows us to produce hydrogen without supplying heat, connecting to a battery, or adding electricity. Once the aluminum clusters are synthesized, they can generate hydrogen on demand without the need to store it."