Scientists work on carbon catalysts to speed up reactions

Scientists in Norway are developing carbon catalysts that could be used instead of precious metals to speed up chemical reactions.

The €4m (£3.2m) EU-backed FREECATS (Doped carbon nanostructures as metal free catalysts) project is aiming to develop environmentally friendly catalysts that can be used in fuel cells, water purification and the production of light olefins.

The scientists will attempt to build carbon structures on the atomic scale that are capable of binding or transforming substances in certain ways.

Prof Magnus Rønning from the Catalysis group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s department of chemical engineering told The Engineer that his team would specifically be using nitrogen to dope carbon nanomaterials and that they would be exploring both in situ and ex situ doping techniques.

Rønning said that expensive metal catalysts often contribute to parallel chemical reactions that may compete with the main reaction. He claimed that metal-free catalysts have a higher selectivity and are more reliable in performing the desired reactions, which reduces the risk of reactions that create unwanted waste products that may be harmful to the environment.

Catalysis is one of the major consumers of precious metals, such as platinum. However, platinum group metals are not usually found naturally in Europe and, as a result, European countries rely on imports.

By moving away from traditional catalysts, Rønning said, ‘the European dependency on precious metals will ease and therefore the dependency on less stable countries to supply these’.

The three-year project commenced in April 2012 and the team hopes the first catalysts will be available by the end of this year.

Nine European research institutions and technology enterprises are working on the project, which is being coordinated by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.