Team reveals breakthrough in chemical catalyst development

Minnesota University engineering researchers are leading an international team that has made a breakthrough in developing a catalyst used during chemical reactions in the production of chemicals such as petrol.

‘The impact of this new discovery is enormous,’ said the team’s lead researcher Michael Tsapatsis, a chemical engineering and materials science professor in the university’s College of Science and Engineering. ‘Every drop of gasoline we use needs a catalyst to change the oil molecules into usable gasoline during the refining process.’

According to a statement, the research improves efficiencies by giving molecules fast access to the catalysts where the chemical reactions occur.

The research team built the prototype of the new catalyst using highly optimised ultra-thin zeolite nanosheets. They used a unique process to encourage growth of these nanosheets at 90º angles. The arrangement of the nanosheets makes the catalyst faster, more selective and more stable, but can be made at the same cost (or possibly cheaper) than traditional catalysts.

With faster catalysts available at no extra cost to the producer, production per manufacturing dollar will increase. With a higher output, it is conceivable that consumer costs will drop.

This new discovery is said to build upon previous discoveries at Minnesota University of ultra-thin zeolite nanosheets used as specialised molecular sieves for the production of renewable and fossil-based fuels and chemicals.

These discoveries, licensed by start-up company Argilex Technologies, are key components of the company’s materials-based platform. The development of the new catalyst is complete, and the material is ready for customer testing.

‘This breakthrough can have a major impact on both the conversion of natural gas to higher-value chemicals and fuels and on bio and petroleum refiners,’ said Cesar Gonzalez, chief executive officer of Argilex Technologies.

‘Using catalysts made by this novel approach, refiners will be able to obtain a higher yield of desirable products such as gasoline, diesel, ethylene and propylene. At Argilex, we envision this catalyst technology platform to become a key contributor to the efficient use of natural resources and improved economics of the world’s largest industries.’

The research, carried out in conjunction with researchers from institutions in Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Korea and Sweden, is to be published in the 29 June 2012 issue of Science.