Modulating Catalysts for Converting Non-edible Plants

Illustration: Irrigation of the catalyst boosts the active sites and accelerates the chemistry. | Image: Portion of article publication

Modulating Catalysts for Converting Non-edible Plants

Researchers establish strategy for a greener future

Catalysts transform resources such as fossil fuels and biomass – even waste – into commodity products and transportation fuels at low energy cost. Innovative catalytic technologies can enable a more sustainable and greener future. Researchers in the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) at the University of Delaware have investigated the dynamic nature of metal-metal oxide catalysts and come up with a strategy to improve, by nearly an order of magnitude, their performance for the conversion of non-edible plants to renewable fuels, chemicals, and plastics.

The team’s work was published in Nature Catalysis on Tuesday, February 23, 2022.

The surfaces of catalysts contain active sites at which chemical reactions occur. These sites are typically studied under conditions very different from those in a chemical reactor. Although this conventional approach is fine for catalysts not sensitive to the environment, it is not suited for understanding these catalysts. The interaction between the active sites and their surroundings is highly complex, dynamic, and challenging to predict.

To uncover the mystery of the active sites, the CCEI researchers employed an integrated approach that combined modeling, advanced synthetic techniques, in-situ spectroscopies, and probe reactions. Through teamwork, they uncovered the dynamic nature of active sites and, by identifying the telltale signs of their dynamics, were able establish, for the first time, a robust model to predict their behavior in various working environments. Catalyst surfaces are not static, but, rather, like plants can flourish, given a balance of sunshine and irrigation. They successfully developed and demonstrated a novel “irrigation” strategy which uses hydrogen pulsing to significantly increase the population of active sites on these catalysts.

The work illustrates a successful example of how simulations can predict complex and dynamic catalytic behavior and enable the rational design of more efficient catalytic processes, paving the road towards a viable way of studying, understanding, and controlling this important class of catalysts.

“This work is an exemplary of what teamwork can accomplish,” said Jiayi Fu, lead author and doctoral student at the University of Delaware who also just joined Bristol Myers Squibb.

Catalysts are known to evolve and respond to their environment, but they do this privately and fast, at length and time scales that are often too hard to observe in real-time. This work sets a platform of how to dissect their working behavior and importantly how to engineer them to give unprecedented performance enhancement,” noted Dion Vlachos, the Unidel Dan Rich Chair in Energy and Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Director of CCEI and of the Delaware Energy Institute (DEI).

The team included researchers from the University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, Tianjin University, Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), an Energy Frontier Research Center (ERFC), was founded in 2009 and is funded by the Department of Energy (DOE).