Chemical processes that are more efficient and less expensive may be coming to industries ranging from battery manufacturing to detergent production thanks to an Oregon State University researcher’s work advancing metal oxides as catalysts.
The findings, by a collaboration that included scientists from the University of Delaware, were published in Nature Catalysis.
A catalyst increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by the reaction — thus it is able to perform the rate-increase function repeatedly. Catalysts are involved in the production of most chemicals significant in industry — plastics, dyes, explosives, fuels and more.
Catalysts have traditionally been based on precious metals such as platinum and palladium, explains Konstantinos Goulas, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering and one of the authors of the study.
Those precious metals are expensive and, as catalysts for biomass conversion, “unselective” — that is, their ability to direct a reaction to yield a particular chemical is limited.
“That’s why we undertook this study,” Goulas said. “This work was inspired by our research on the conversion of biomass, such as wood and agricultural residues, into fuels and commodity chemicals. We wanted to understand the principles of biomass conversion using oxide-based catalysts, which previous studies had suggested were selective catalysts.”
An oxide catalyst is a compound that contains at least one other element in addition to oxygen. Oxides are very abundant and can be relatively inexpensive; for example, most of the earth’s crust consists of metal oxides.
By comparing how fast specific chemicals can be made on a variety of metal oxide catalysts, the team gained important insights related to what properties result in the best metal-oxide catalysts.
“Our study shows that oxide properties that are easy to determine, such as the Gibbs Free Energy of formation of the oxide, can predict the oxide’s reactivity. This opens up new pathways for rational catalyst design and more efficient processes in many fields, from industrial chemistry to pollution abatement,” Goulas said.