An illustration of the optimized zeolite catalyst NbAlS-1. Image: ORNL/Jill Hemman.
An illustration of the optimized zeolite catalyst NbAlS-1. Image: ORNL/Jill Hemman.

An international team led by researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK has designed a catalyst that is not only able to convert biomass into fuel sources with a remarkably high efficiency but also offers new possibilities for manufacturing advanced renewable materials.

Neutron scattering experiments at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) played a key role in determining the chemical and behavioral dynamics of the novel zeolite catalyst – zeolite is a common porous material used in commercial catalysis. These experiments provided information that helped to maximize the zeolite’s performance.

The optimized catalyst, called NbAlS-1, converts biomass-derived raw materials into light olefins – a class of petrochemicals that includes ethene, propene and butene, which are 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 reports its work in a paper in Nature Materials.

"Industry relies heavily on the use of light olefins from crude oil, but their production can have negative impacts on the environment," said lead author Longfei Lin at the University of Manchester. "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. This waste usually 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 between elements such as carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Some bonds might require heating to 1000°C (more than 1800°F) and hotter before they are broken.

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

"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," said ORNL researcher Yongqiang Cheng. "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 for studying 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 allowed 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.

"There's a lot of trial and error associated with designing such a high-performance catalyst such as the one we've developed," said corresponding author Sihai Yang at University of Manchester. "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, also in the UK.

This story is adapted from material from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.