University of Minnesota engineering researchers leading a team with international members have made a major breakthrough in developing a catalyst used during chemical reactions in the production of gasoline, plastics, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals. The discovery could lead to major efficiencies and cost-savings in these multibillion-dollar industries.

This research improves efficiencies by giving molecules fast access to the catalysts where the chemical reactions occur.  The research was published in the June 29, 2012 issue of the leading scientific journal Science.

Lead researcher and team leader Michael Tsapatsis, a chemical engineering and materials science professor in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, offers the importance of the development saying, “The impact of this new discovery is enormous. Every drop of gasoline we use needs a catalyst to change the oil molecules into usable gasoline during the refining process.”

Tsapatsis explains the value of speed with an analogy, “It’s faster and more efficient to use freeways to get where we want to go and exit to do our business compared to driving the side streets the entire way. The catalysts used today are more like all side streets. Molecules move slowly and get stuck. The efficiencies of these new catalysts could lower the costs of gasoline and other products for all of us.”

Zeolite Nanosheet Catalyst. Click image for more info.

The Minnesota team built their prototype of the new catalyst using highly optimized ultra-thin zeolite nanosheets. They used a unique process to encourage growth of these nanosheets at 90-degree angles, similar to building a house of cards, as the press release puts it. The house-of-cards 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.

That opens the potential to lower prices for finished chemicals made with the new catalyst.  With faster catalysts available at no extra cost to the producer, production units per manufacturing dollar will increase. With a higher output, it is possible that consumer costs will drop.  In some circumstances the catalyst is an important expense.

The new development builds upon previous discoveries at the University of Minnesota of ultra-thin zeolite nanosheets used as specialized molecular sieves for production of both renewable and fossil-based fuels and chemicals. These discoveries, licensed by the new Minnesota 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.

Cesar Gonzalez, CEO of Argilex Technologies said, “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. 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 efficient use of natural resources and improved economics of the world’s largest industries.“

The press release makes it all sound superb, and very likely; the new catalyst will find customers.  The research is likely not finished for broad commercial use.  Catalysts are at work in a wide range of conditions including temperature, pressure and the gas or fluid viscosity – of which are going to be presenting differing circumstances. Nano sizes without support are going to need more engineering in many uses.

As the preparation of the catalyst for particular uses gets worked out some early adopters could be in for a market advantage and that may well speed wider adoption.

Still, as great as it sounds the real world applications and commercial scale are major thresholds for the new science.  And some success will stimulate even more work in the field of nano processes.  There’s high interest about that unique process – where else it could go is quite an engaging question.

Congratulations to the Minnesota team are in order.  Well done.


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