University of Nottingham School of Chemistry scientists have developed a recyclable system for converting carbon monoxide (CO) directly into more complicated organic molecules using depleted uranium.  This is a very large concept taking a bold step into making use of used uranium and making complex molecules – some are thinking it could be used to make fuels.

It’s a simple three-step chemical reaction, which could soon herald the introduction of new sustainable feedstocks for the chemical industry.

Carbon Monoxide Feedstocks Interfacing with Uranium. Click image for the largest view. Image credit: University of Nottingham.

Using depleted uranium, chemists have developed a three stage synthetic cycle in which an electron is transferred to CO molecules making them more reactive, a new molecule is then assembled, and then, crucially, the CO-derived molecule is liberated and the metal complex that creates the chemical reaction is retrieved so it can be used again.

Dr. Stephen Liddle, an expert in inorganic chemistry, led the research, funded by the Royal Society and European Research Council. Details of the new procedure, which can return the molecule that performs the transformation back to its starting point, have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

For background, many of the products society has come to rely on are derived from petrochemicals and an array of feedstocks needed to satisfy the voracious appetite of the petrochemical industry are produced from the refining of crude oil.

That makes the search for more sustainable sources of feedstocks for petrochemical production and CO, in particular, one of the top options. Industry generates CO in great abundance but the problem facing chemists have been how to convert highly stable and difficult to react CO directly into useable molecular compounds.

Now CO is mostly sourced from methane and coal stocks because CO is an important industrial gas widely used in many industrial operations. It’s used for example, in the production of aldehydes, methanol and pure nickel.  It’s readily produced by steam reforming reactions and as a result is an abundant resource that could be used in crude oil-free bulk hydrocarbon feedstock production.

The continued growth and stability of the global economy requires the ready availability of petrochemical feedstocks.  But uncertainty in petrochemical cost, supply and events such as the energy crisis in the 1970s has driven demand for developing alternative sources to crude oil.

So far developing processes to fix CO into molecules of practical use are energy intensive. Many attempts have been made to make molecular compounds derived purely from CO fixation but they aren’t recyclable.

Dr. Liddle believes, “This is a significant step forward in the search for viable alternatives to crude oil – it means that a simple catalytic process for converting CO directly into more complex and value-added organic molecules may soon be in reach.”

Winding up Liddle said, “Our work represents a step forward because we have closed a simple synthetic cycle for fixing carbon monoxide – the challenge now is to make this a catalytic cycle and to exploit the findings of this work with metals that industry could more easily use.”

That’s just so.  Making fuels from base chemicals as simple as carbon dioxide isn’t easy or inexpensive.  Building up to 4 or 5 and on to 15 carbon atoms in a molecule has been a difficult and almost always an impractical idea.  In comparison scaling to form liquid fuel from methane relies on very low cost natural gas and quite costly crude oil.  It can be done.

If it turns out the myriad applications that are available can make use of the depleted uranium ability to handle electrons and make CO more reactive and the other inputs are reduced in cost and complexity, such leading but still costly processes like pyrolysis and the other processes with CO as an intermediate product could have a very different future.

The potential is astonishing.


5 Comments so far

  1. jp straley on June 4, 2012 7:52 AM

    The hydrogen source is tricky. Steam reforming of methane will bump the cost, also add to the carbon footprint. And the darn carbon footprint is a key rationale for considering this tech.

    JP Straley

  2. ZviBenYosef on June 4, 2012 4:37 PM

    How much spent fuel Uranium is available? If you want to use this process to replace oil, then it will require quite a lot, much more than is available from spent fuel rods. I thought this article would be about a method for neutralizing dangerous spent fuel rods.

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