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. 2018 Sep;18(9):1147-1158.
doi: 10.1089/ast.2017.1707. Epub 2018 Aug 14.

Geoelectrodes and Fuel Cells for Simulating Hydrothermal Vent Environments

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Geoelectrodes and Fuel Cells for Simulating Hydrothermal Vent Environments

Laura M Barge et al. Astrobiology. .

Abstract

Gradients generated in hydrothermal systems provide a significant source of free energy for chemosynthetic life and may play a role in present-day habitability on ocean worlds. Electron/proton/ion gradients, particularly in the context of hydrothermal chimney structures, may also be relevant to the origins of life on Earth. Hydrothermal vents are similar in some ways to typical fuel cell devices: redox/pH gradients between seawater and hydrothermal fluid are analogous to the fuel cell oxidant and fuel reservoirs; the porous chimney wall is analogous to a separator or ion-exchange membrane and is also a conductive path for electrons; and the hydrothermal minerals are analogous to electrode catalysts. The modular and scalable characteristics of fuel cell systems make for a convenient planetary geology test bed in which geologically relevant components may be assembled and investigated in a controlled simulation environment. We have performed fuel cell experiments and electrochemical studies to better understand the catalytic potential of seafloor minerals and vent chimneys, using samples from a black smoker vent chimney as an initial demonstration. In a fuel cell with Na+-conducting Nafion® membranes and liquid fuel/oxidant reservoirs (simulating the vent environment), the black smoker mineral catalyst in the membrane electrode assembly was effective in reducing O2 and oxidizing sulfide. In a H2/O2 polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell with H+-conducting Nafion membranes, the black smoker catalyst was effective in reducing O2 but not in oxidizing H2. These fuel cell experiments accurately simulated the redox reactions that could occur in a geological setting with this particular catalyst, and also tested whether the minerals are sufficiently active to replace a commercial fuel cell catalyst. Similar experiments with other geocatalysts could be utilized to test which redox reactions could be driven in other hydrothermal systems, including hypothesized vent systems on other worlds.

Keywords: Electrochemistry; Fuel cell; Gradients; Hydrothermal chimney; Hydrothermal vent.

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