Researchers used compounds of platinum and aluminum to create a catalyst that allows certain chemical reactions to occur more efficiently than ever. The catalyst could significantly reduce energy consumption in various industrial and pharmaceutical processes. It also allows a wider range of sustainable sources to power the processes, which could reduce the demand for the fossil fuels they need.
There are many chemicals used in a wide variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals, that you probably don’t notice in everyday life; for example, benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, to name a few. These are created in chemical production plants that use petroleum to fuel the processes in question. But now there is a way to produce these chemicals in a more sustainable way.
Assistant Professor Xiongjie Jin and Professor Kyoko Nozaki from the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology at the University of Tokyo and their team have created a new catalyst, a material that enables or accelerates a specific chemical reaction, which enables more sustainable production of so – called aromatic hydrocarbons. Currently, the process generally requires temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius or more and pressures of 2 atmospheres or more. But with the team’s new catalyst, the temperature can be brought down to between 100 and 150 degrees Celsius and the pressure to just 1 atmosphere, or ambient pressure. This could significantly reduce the energy cost of production.
“Our ‘Pt catalyst’ uses platinum nanoparticles and an aluminum metaphosphate substrate, which is rarely used in catalysts,” said Jin. “The source molecules that interact with this catalyst at the right temperature and pressure break down into useful aromatic hydrocarbon compounds. This process is called hydrogenolysis. But the most exciting part for us is not only that the catalyst improves the efficiency of the reaction, but that it opens up new options for the types of raw materials that can now be used in these processes. “
Currently, non-renewable petroleum-based substances are used to create aromatic hydrocarbons, and this is not a long-term sustainable scenario. The Pt catalyst allows the use of renewable woody biomass as a source material, in particular a family of compounds called lignins, which contain phenols, at the basis of the reactions in question. Another advantage of the Pt catalyst is that it can be recycled and reused several times. All of these factors combined could lead to a much more sustainable way of producing aromatic hydrocarbons on an industrial scale.
“We hope our study will contribute to the (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals by making important industrial chemicals from renewable resources instead of petroleum, and at a lower energy cost,” said Jin. “Our next steps will be to further increase the life of the Pt catalyst and to make the catalyst work directly on the lignins, alleviating the need to break it down into phenols before reactions can take place.
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