Tokyo Institute of Technology scientists have developed a cheap and efficient copper-based catalyst that can be used to convert glycerol to dihydroxyacetone (DHA). Glycerol, one of the main by-products of the biodiesel industry, has been a problem of excess supply and limited use. Additionally, this same process produces hydrogen molecules from water, and those molecules could be used as a clean type of fuel, further highlighting the impact of this research in terms of energy sustainability.

Although governments, academia, and organizations all around the world have been emphasizing the crisis concerning the use of fossil fuels for many years, the demand has constantly been on the increase. Researchers have fervently focused on finding alternative fuels that are cleaner and with the potential for sustainable production.

Hydrogen (H2) is a very attractive candidate as a replacement of fossil fuels because it can be produced from water (H2O) through hydrolysis, the splitting of water molecules. Another sustainable route is the synthesis of biodiesels, which are made using vegetable oils through a transformation process known as transesterification.

Sustainable biodiesel and hydrogen energy cycles. One of the main waste by-products of the biodiesel industry, glycerol, can be used as a raw material for the generation of valuable dihydroxyacetone and hydrogen, the latter of which can be used as 100% clean fuel. Image Credit: Tokyo Institute of Technology. Click image for the largest view.

However, biodiesel synthesis produces excessive amounts of glycerol (C3H8O3). It is estimated than the biodiesel industry in Europe alone produces a surplus of 1.4 million tons of glycerol, which cannot be sold to other industries. If glycerol could be used as a raw material to obtain more valuable chemicals, this would make the biodiesel industry more profitable, thus allowing governments, companies and consumers an alternative to fossil fuels.

Now, researchers from Tokyo Tech and Taiwan Tech recently found an efficient way to put this surplus glycerol to good use. While the electrochemical conversion of glycerol to other more valuable organic compounds, such as dihydroxyacetone (DHA), has been studied for years, existing approaches require the use of precious metals, namely platinum, gold, and silver. Because the use of these metals represents 95% of the overall cost of glycerol to DHA conversion, this research team focused on finding an affordable alternative.

The research paper reporting the results has been published in the journal Applied Catalysis B: Environmental.

In their study, they found that copper oxide (CuO), a cheap and abundant material, could be used as a catalyst to selectively convert glycerol into DHA even at mild reaction conditions. For this to happen, the pH (concentration of free hydrogen ions) in the solution of the electrochemical cell has to be at a specific value.

Through various microscopy techniques, the researchers analyzed the crystalline structure and composition of the CuO catalyst and tailored them to make it stable while also carefully inspecting the possible conversion pathways for glycerol in their system according to the solution’s pH. This allowed them to find appropriate reaction conditions that favored the production of DHA.

Professor Tomohiro Hayashi, lead researcher from Tokyo Tech noted, “We have not only discovered a new, earth-abundant catalyst for high-selectivity DHA conversion, but also demonstrate the possibility of giving new valuable life to a waste product of the biodiesel industry.”

As mentioned above, the electrochemical system proposed in this study not only produced DHA from glycerol on one end, but also H2 on the other through water splitting. This means that this approach could be used to address two current problems simultaneously. “Both the biodiesel and the hydrogen generation industries could benefit from our system, leading to a more sustainable world,” explained Prof. Hayashi.

The glycerol issue has met a huge breakthrough. Glycerol is now a plug limiting the progress of biodiesel market growth. Its mostly a case of getting rid of it at the lowest possible cost instead of using a process that produces a profit. This research may well be a sea change level of progress in biofuel production. There is a worldwide abundance of the major agricultural food crops and many areas and people that could be growing fuel crops.

Should this technology scale up to commercial scale it would be a world wide economic boon.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory scientists have found that sprinkling boron powder into fusion plasma could aid in harnessing the ultra-hot gas within a tokamak facility to produce heat to generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases or long-term radioactive waste.

A major issue with operating the ring-shaped fusion facilities known as tokamaks is keeping the plasma that fuels fusion reactions free of impurities that could reduce the efficiency of the reactions.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have found that sprinkling a type of boron powder into the plasma could aid in harnessing the ultra-hot gas within a tokamak facility to produce heat.

The paper reporting the results has been published in the journal Nuclear Fusion.

Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, combines light elements into heavier elements in the form of plasma – the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei – that generates massive amounts of energy. Scientists are seeking to replicate fusion on Earth for a virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate electricity.

PPPL physicist Robert Lunsford, lead author of the paper said, “The main goal of the experiment was to see if we could lay down a layer of boron using a powder injector. So far, the experiment appears to have been successful.”

The boron prevents an element known as tungsten from leaching out of the tokamak walls into the plasma, where it can cool the plasma particles and make fusion reactions less efficient. A layer of boron is applied to plasma-facing surfaces in a process known as “boronization.” Scientists want to keep the plasma as hot as possible – at least ten times hotter than the surface of the sun – to maximize the fusion reactions and therefore the heat to generate electricity.

Using powder to provide boronization is also far safer than using a boron gas called diborane, the method used today.

Lunsford explained, “Diborane gas is explosive, so everybody has to leave the building housing the tokamak during the process. On the other hand, if you could just drop some boron powder into the plasma, that would be a lot easier to manage. While diborane gas is explosive and toxic, boron powder is inert,” he added. “This new technique would be less intrusive and definitely less dangerous.”

Another advantage is that while physicists must halt tokamak operations during the boron gas process, boron powder can be added to the plasma while the machine is running. This feature is important because to provide a constant source of electricity, future fusion facilities will have to run for long, uninterrupted periods of time.

“This is one way to get to a steady-state fusion machine,” Lunsford said. “You can add more boron without having to completely shut down the machine.”

There are other reasons to use a powder dropper to coat the inner surfaces of a tokamak. For example, the researchers discovered that injecting boron powder has the same benefit as puffing nitrogen gas into the plasma – both techniques increase the heat at the plasma edge, which increases how well the plasma stays confined within the magnetic fields.

The powder dropper technique also gives scientists an easy way to create low-density fusion plasmas, important because low density allows plasma instabilities to be suppressed by magnetic pulses, a relatively simple way to improve fusion reactions. Scientists could use powder to create low-density plasmas at any time, rather than waiting for a gaseous boronization. Being able to create a wide range of plasma conditions easily in this way would enable physicists to explore the behavior of plasma more thoroughly.

In the future, Lunsford and the other scientists in the group hope to conduct experiments to determine where, exactly, the material goes after it has been injected into the plasma. Physicists currently hypothesize that the powder flows to the top and bottom of the tokamak chamber, the same way the plasma flows, “but it would be useful to have that hypothesis backed up by modeling so we know the exact locations within the tokamak that are getting the boron layers,” Lunsford said.

Admittedly your humble writer has low expectations of the tokmak concept. The expense, lack of temperature progress and other sundry problems look like a multi century undertaking. Those, plus the scale up into the mega billion dollar ITER program seem to remind of the definition of insanity. Sort of where the Russians who, back in the 60s, blessed the west with the idea.

Now this team has came along and made real progress. They seem to be the leading edge of tokamak research. A well deserved congratulations are in order.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced researchers led by the University of Manchester used neutron scattering in the development of a catalyst that converts biomass into liquid fuel with remarkably high efficiency. The development provides new possibilities for manufacturing renewable energy-related materials.

Neutron scattering experiments at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory played a key role in determining the chemical and behavioral dynamics of a zeolite catalyst – zeolite is a common porous material used in commercial catalysis – to provide information for maximizing its performance.

Illustration of the optimized zeolite catalyst (NbAlS-1), which enables a highly efficient chemical reaction to create butene, a renewable source of energy, without expending high amounts of energy for the conversion. Image Credit: ORNL/Jill Hemman. Click image for the largest view.

The optimized catalyst, called NbAlS-1, converts biomass-derived raw materials into light olefins – a class of petrochemicals such as ethene, propene, and butene, used to make plastics and liquid fuels. The new catalyst has an impressive yield of more than 99% but requires significantly less energy compared to its predecessors.

The team’s research has been published in the journal Nature Materials.

Lead author Longfei Lin at the University of Manchester said, “Industry relies heavily on the use of light olefins from crude oil, but their production can have negative impacts on the environment. Previous catalysts that produced butene from purified oxygenated compounds required lots of energy, or extremely high temperatures. This new catalyst directly converts raw oxygenated compounds using much milder conditions and with significantly less energy and is more environmentally friendly.”

Biomass is organic matter that can be converted and used for fuel and feedstock. It is commonly derived from leftover agricultural waste such as wood, grass, and straw that gets broken down and fed into a catalyst that converts it to butene – an energy-rich gas used by the chemical and petroleum industries to make plastics, polymers and liquid fuels that are otherwise produced from oil.

Typically, a chemical reaction requires a tremendous amount of energy to break the strong bonds formed from elements such as carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Some bonds might require heating them to 1,000°C (more than 1,800°F) and hotter before the bonds are broken.

For a greener design, the team doped the catalyst by replacing the zeolite’s silicon atoms with niobium and aluminum. The substitution creates a chemically unbalanced state that promotes bond separation and radically reduces the need for high degrees of heat treatments.

ORNL researcher Yongqiang Cheng said, “The chemistry that takes place on the surface of a catalyst can be extremely complicated. If you’re not careful in controlling things like pressure, temperature, and concentration, you’ll end up making very little butene. To obtain a high yield, you have to optimize the process, and to optimize the process you have to understand how the process works.”

Neutrons are well suited to study chemical reactions of this type due to their deeply penetrating properties and their acute sensitivity to light elements such as hydrogen. The VISION spectrometer at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source enabled the researchers to determine precisely which chemical bonds were present and how they were behaving based on the bonds’ vibrational signatures. That information allowed them to reconstruct the chemical sequence needed to optimize the catalyst’s performance.

Corresponding author Sihai Yang at University of Manchester said, “There’s a lot of trial and error associated with designing such a high-performance catalyst such as the one we’ve developed. The more we understand how catalysts work, the more we can guide the design process of next-generation materials.”

Synchrotron X-ray diffraction measurements at the UK’s Diamond Light Source were used to determine the catalyst’s atomic structure and complementary neutron scattering measurements were made at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

The task is to wonder what is a more noteworthy result, a breakthrough in producing butene or the process to make the catalyst or the use of neurons to research and discover a new way to build a catalyst. All three are very welcome news, indeed.

Well, lets go with using neurons for research, a fairly new concept with huge potential. Then add the new catalyst in a very fast innovating field and likely first to have impact making butene, that could well bring lower prices and a cleaner production process to consumers fairly soon.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign engineers have developed a solid polymer-based electrolyte that can self-heal after damage. Plus the material can also be recycled without the use of harsh chemicals or high temperatures.

Images demonstrating the breaking and healing of dynamic network r = 0.085 on a rheometer plate heated at 140 ̊ C. Image Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Click image for the largest view.

The new study, which could help manufacturers produce recyclable, self-healing commercial batteries, is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Lithium-ion batteries are notorious for developing internal electrical shorts that can ignite a battery’s liquid electrolytes, leading to explosions and fires.

The researchers explain that as lithium-ion batteries go through multiple cycles of charge and discharge, they develop tiny, branchlike structures of solid lithium called dendrites. These structures reduce battery life, cause hotspots and electrical shorts, and sometimes grow large enough to puncture the internal parts of the battery, causing explosive chemical reactions between the electrodes and electrolyte liquids.

There has been a push by chemists and engineers to replace the liquid electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries with solid materials such as ceramics or polymers. However, many of these materials are rigid and brittle resulting in poor electrolyte-to-electrode contact and reduced conductivity.

Brian Jing, a materials science and engineering graduate student and study co-author said, “Solid ion-conducting polymers are one option for developing nonliquid electrolytes. But the high-temperature conditions inside a battery can melt most polymers, again resulting in dendrites and failure.”

Past studies have produced solid electrolytes by using a network of polymer strands that are cross-linked to form a rubbery lithium conductor. This method delays the growth of dendrites; however, these materials are complex and cannot be recovered or healed after damage, Jing noted.

To address this issue, the researchers developed a network polymer electrolyte in which the cross-link point can undergo exchange reactions and swap polymer strands. In contrast to linear polymers, these networks actually get stiffer upon heating, which can potentially minimize the dendrite problem, the researchers said. Additionally, they can be easily broken down and resolidified into a networked structure after damage, making them recyclable, and they restore conductivity after being damaged because they are self-healing.

Jing described the results with, “This new network polymer also shows the remarkable property that both conductivity and stiffness increase with heating, which is not seen in conventional polymer electrolytes.”

Lead author Christopher Evans added, “Most polymers require strong acids and high temperatures to break down. Our material dissolves in water at room temperature, making it a very energy-efficient and environmentally friendly process.”

The team probed the conductivity of the new material and found its potential as an effective battery electrolyte to be promising, the researchers said, but acknowledge that more work is required before it could be used in batteries that are comparable to what is in use today.

Evans wound up saying, “I think this work presents an interesting platform for others to test. We used a very specific chemistry and a very specific dynamic bond in our polymer, but we think this platform can be reconfigured to be used with many other chemistries to tweak the conductivity and mechanical properties.”

The coming years are going to see, at a minimum, tremendous improvements in lithium ion batteries. This technology may well be an important step. There is also likely to be major gains in competitive battery chemistries to watch and perhaps see in consumer products. Things are going to change, and managing that cell phone, laptop and tablet battery charge is going to get a lot easier.

Wake Forest University scientists have created a new chemical process that does in the lab what trees do in nature, convert carbon dioxide into usable chemicals or fuels.

The research paper describing the new chemical process “Colloidal Silver Diphosphide Nanocrystals as Low Overpotential Catalysts for CO2 Reduction to Tunable Syngas,” has been published online in the journal Nature Communications.

This new, carbon-neutral process, created by researchers at Wake Forest, uses silver diphosphide (AgP2) as a novel catalyst that takes carbon dioxide pollution from manufacturing plants and converts it by recycling it into a material called syngas, from which the liquid fuel used in manufacturing is made. The new catalyst allows the conversion of carbon dioxide into fuel with minimal energy loss compared to the current state-of-the-art process, according to the Wake Forest researchers.

Scott Geyer, the corresponding author, said, “This catalyst makes the process much more efficient. Silver diphosphide is the key that makes all the other parts work. It reduces energy loss in the process by a factor of three.”

Silver has been considered to date as the best catalyst for this process. Adding phosphorus removes electron density from the silver, making the process more controllable and reducing energy waste.

In the future, Geyer sees being able to power this process with solar energy, directly converting sunlight into fuel. The more efficient the chemical conversion process becomes, the more likely solar energy – instead of coal or other non-renewable energy sources – can be used to make fuel.

“People make syngas out of coal all the time,” Geyer said. “But we’re taking something you don’t want, carbon dioxide pollution, and turning it into something you want, fuel for industry.”

Geyer, whose lab focuses on understanding the role phosphorus plays in chemical reactions, is an assistant professor of chemistry at Wake Forest. The team that produced this paper includes Hui Li, who led the work as a Ph.D. student in Geyer’s lab, plus former Wake Forest undergraduate Zachary Hood; Ph.D. in chemistry student Shiba Adhikari; and Ph.D. student in physics student Chaochao Dun, who all have stayed connected with the program through their professional posts.

“The ability to collaborate with a network of outstanding Wake Forest University graduates who are now at top universities and national laboratories across the United States has been essential in preparing this work as it allows us to access one-of-a-kind instrumentation facilities at their current institutions,” Geyer said.

This looks quite promising. The concept of recovering your fuel cost back into saleable product does have quite an interesting allure. The merits are going to hinge on capital cost and operating efficiencies. Make money from effluent and the industrial output of CO2 might very well drop dramatically.

Then there is the press release noting everyone involved by name, which is unusual, and that the team is still working together and progressing the work. This too is quite an encouraging sign that this team may well be on to something quite worthwhile.