The Van’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has sent out their press release announcing the discovery and design of a catalyst to build synthetic fuels from natural gas and biomass using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The catalyst has already been patented by the Total S.A. oil and gas company. This one looks to be going commercial.
The research paper has been published as a “Very Important Paper” article in Angewandte Chemie. Looks like major news now.
The catalyst is based on a new nanocobalt-ironoxide utilization inspired by patents from the 1960’s audio cassette recording industry and can be used for making synthetic fuels from natural gas and biomass.
Roberto Calderone, Raveendran Shiju and Gadi Rothenberg from the Heterogeneous Catalysis and Sustainable Chemistry group at the Van‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences succeeded in growing nanometer-thin cobalt shells on iron oxide particles. These new materials are excellent Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) catalysts, giving good diesel fractions.
The well-known Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process is used for producing fuels from synthesis gas made by heating natural gas, biomass or coal in an oxygen free system. The large reserves of shale gas and natural gas currently changing the world energy market have intensified interest in F-T technology.
But there is a catch: F-T reactors are huge, and typically use hundreds of tons of catalyst.
Cobalt-based catalysts are the optimal choice for synthesizing middle distillate fuels such as diesel and kerosene with F-T technology. But cobalt is also expensive. In 2009 the
Total Gas & Power Company contacted Rothenberg’s group to develop a new F-T catalyst working together. The UvA researchers took up the challenge to design a cheaper catalyst that can be prepared on a very large scale yet performs at least as well as pure cobalt.
The chemical aspects of their ambition were daunting. Gaining an economic advantage requires engineering of the particles at single-nanometer resolution, yet in a manner that can be scaled up to multi-ton scale. This rules out all chemical procedures that require high sophistication, extreme temperatures, or expensive chemicals.
The UvA team sought to meet these restraints with the so-called surface nucleation of a cobalt phase onto iron oxide colloids. They were inspired by the method that companies such as Japan’s TDK used in the 1960s for producing the magnetic tapes for audiocassettes. The standard recording materials in these cassettes were polymer-based tapes containing cigar-shaped cobalt-doped iron oxide particles.
After two years of hard work the UvA team achieved a cheap, reliable, efficient and, most importantly, scalable method for synthesizing spherical “core-shell” catalyst particles. The particles have an average diameter of 10 nanometer (nm) and consist of an 8 nm magnetite (iron oxide) core with a cobalt oxide shell of only 1 nm. The new catalysts were then tested in collaboration with research groups of Andreas Jess in Bayreuth and Andrei Khodakov in Lille. They proved to be excellent Fischer-Tropsch catalysts, giving good diesel fractions.
Rothenberg is proud of his team saying, “As an academic group, we cannot compete with industrial research teams on facilities, but we can compete with them on ideas and innovation.” He credits his co-worker Roberto Calderone, who persistently pursued the idea of particle synthesis and coating based on the audiocassettes approach.
“Being a chemist, I love the idea of making something so accurate (the cobalt shells are only a few atoms thick) yet using a procedure that any high-school student can repeat,” Rothenberg said.
The new catalysts and the method for their preparation patents were filed naming the UvA researchers as co-inventors by Total S.A.
There are a lot of business models that strongly suggest that pyrolysis and Fischer-Tropsch are the next big step in fuel production. These views are quite likely correct in the near term for natural gas and coal. If the new catalyst could aid engineering smaller facilities that could be supported by close up transported biomass the next great step in liquid fuels could be at hand.