The search for hydrogen recipes

We are seeing a quiet revolution in materials research. When Nong Artrith first started her career in physics and chemistry, new chemical reactions were only being discovered in laboratories. These days, the process is a lot faster, safe and cheaper thanks to computer simulations and artificial intelligence.

Foto van Nong Artrith in haar lab
image: Bas van Hattum

When it comes to the energy transition, hydrogen is one of the most promising materials we have: it can be used for energy storage and serve as the basis for synthetic fuels. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, as interdisciplinary materials scientist Nong Artrith explains. Hydrogen is already being used in industrial applications, but it still isn’t efficient and cheap enough to be used in smaller quantities — in our cars, for example. Most industrial hydrogen is also still being produced with fossil fuels, so we still have a long way to go in that respect too.

That is because green hydrogen is not easy to produce, as Nong explains. Admittedly, the chemical reaction is pretty straightforward: if you split a water molecule, you get one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The problem is, it’s very difficult to split a water molecule into those individual atoms; that takes a lot of energy. We can simplify that process by using a catalyst: another material that speeds up the chemical reaction. The thing is, those catalysts still tend to be made of expensive materials like platinum or iridium, so I’m trying to find a much cheaper catalyst that works just as well.

Artificial Intelligence makes the materials research process faster, safer and cheaper

Foto van Nong Artrith
Tenure-track assistant professor at the Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science

Promising recipes
That search for a cheaper catalyst is proving to be quite challenging. “We’re studying new catalysts based on cheap materials, like iron, copper, nickel or sulphur,” Nong explains. But there are so many ways to combine those elements, in different quantities and under different experimental conditions like temperature and pressure.

To avoid having to test millions of different catalyst options in the lab, Nong is effectively harnessing developments in big data and AI (artificial intelligence). She has developed an AI system that can predict chemical reactions. We trained the system to apply the physics and quantum mechanics of chemical reactions and fed it all the relevant experimental data we could. For example, you can now ask the AI system to produce a better catalyst for hydrogen production, and it will come up with some promising recipes. We still need to test them in the lab to see if they actually work, but we’ll have fewer failed experiments, because the AI system has already made an initial selection. That makes the materials research process faster, safer and cheaper.

Joining forces
Nong has a clear vision for the future of her field. We could significantly improve our AI models by training them with lots of experimental data from chemistry research groups around the world. That’s why open science is so important. I am proud that we’re leading the way here at Utrecht University, and I’ve noticed more and more research groups are joining the movement lately. My own AI models and database are already open access.”

She sees clear benefits in collaboration, and that does not stop at just the academic world. We need to start talking about sustainability with our parents, our cousins, our children — our entire village. We need to talk to them about their experiences: Why is it so hot? Why are there more frequent floods? That will help them understand the effects of climate change and the importance of sustainability more easily. Many people feel there’s nothing they can do on their own, or they’ve just got other things on their mind. Maybe they have to work seven days a week to support their families and don’t have time for activism or money for more expensive eco-friendly products. Even then, it’s important to let them know they can still make an impact by voting. If we join forces, we can elect leaders that make the right decisions.

Foto van Nong Artrith

Nong Artrith does not let borders between countries or between research disciplines stand in her way. Having completed a Master’s in Physics in Thailand and obtained a PhD in theoretical chemistry in Germany, she moved to the US to pursue research positions at MIT, UC Berkeley and Columbia University. She joined Utrecht University in 2021 as a tenure-track assistant professor at the Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science.