June 28, 2021
Novel catalyst at core of new technology aimed at increasing access to potable water
Dr. Samira Siahrostami, PhD, is part of a group of researchers working to make clean water more accessible to everyone. An assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Siahrostami and a team of international researchers have made the scientific and technical breakthroughs that allow hydrogen peroxide to be produced anywhere, on demand, using only water, electricity, and air.
Using a device called an electrolyzer, this new method allows hydrogen peroxide, an environmentally friendly chemical for treating water, to be made on-site and on demand. The device sits in water, can pump in oxygen, catalyze hydrogen peroxide generation and pump out the product diluted in water. Prior to this invention, most hydrogen peroxide had been produced in large infrastructures, which required transportation to the place of use. The new electrolyzer technology can be placed into the water at treatment plants, delivering hydrogen peroxide on-site while also saving energy.
‘Thinking outside the box’ leads to game-changing discovery
The research collaboration was recently awarded the 2021 Environment, Sustainability and Energy Division Horizon Prize (John Jeyes Award) by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The team also formed a Denmark-based company, HPNow, which sells commercial electrolyzers for water treatment.
HPNow has locations in more than 15 countries around the world, including its own solar-powered emission-free hydrogen peroxide production plant in Spain.
“While our product is currently being used for water treatment in agricultural applications, my goal is to extend it to remote area water treatments, wastewater treatment, and perhaps even for use in reusable water bottles,” Siahrostami says.
Siahrostami’s research lab in the Faculty of Science focuses on computational research, modelling catalyst systems to understand the reaction at the atomic level and developing novel catalyst materials. Her role in the award-winning project was developing the state-of-the-art catalyst used for the reaction that produces hydrogen peroxide, which she has been working toward for “about seven years,” even pre-dating her arrival at UCalgary.
Siahrostami’s novel catalyst has its roots at Technical University of Denmark where she was a postdoctoral fellow and her husband, Mohammedreza Karamad (now a research associate at UCalgary), was working on his PhD.
“At the time, I was researching to find a suitable catalyst to product hydrogen peroxide. I was working on totally different classes of materials. My husband was working at same institution, doing his PhD on a totally different problem, CO2 reduction. We would talk about our work, and I had the idea that the catalyst should possess special atomic arrangements to enhance the hydrogen peroxide selectivity.
"When I talked to him, I realized the catalyst systems he was using could work for my reaction — I tested it out, and it worked perfectly! We then both investigated a larger class of materials with similar atomic properties and proved the viability of the idea. It was one of those stories that illustrates how thinking outside of the box can be lead to innovation. If I didn’t have that conversation with my husband back then, the idea would have never come to me.
"It’s one of those stories that may happen just once in your life, and it can change your life.”
Applications of hydrogen peroxide can help bring positive economic, environmental changes
While most are familiar with hydrogen peroxide as an antiseptic, Siahrostami says that its potential uses are widespread across different industries. Sixty huge production facilities across the world currently produce compressed hydrogen peroxide. HPNow’s electrolyzer will help contribute to that production capacity, in a safer manner.
“Hydrogen peroxide is a very unique chemical in the world,” she says. “It has a lot of applications. For example, with the current pandemic situation we need hydrogen peroxide more than ever because it helps with sterilization and sanitization.
"I’m particularly interested in wastewater treatment, but we are living in a world with a great need for energy supply. Hydrogen peroxide also can be used as fuel because it has the same amount as hydrogen in its chemical structure as fuel hydrogen.”
Hydrogen peroxide, Siahrostami explains, is also a strong chemical oxidant, meaning that it can boost other reactions, such as those requiring an oxidizing agent. She cites methane as an excellent Alberta-based example.
“We’re located in an area with a lot of natural gas, of which methane is one of the main components. We also have to compress methane for use in household applications. However, we can convert methane to methanol or formaldehyde which are more valuable chemicals.”
Siahrostami hopes to open a branch of HPNow in Calgary, and is actively looking for students to work alongside her to continue researching the applications of hydrogen peroxide.