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Molecular Marvel
A Novel Catalyst greases the wheels of Biofuel production

Depending on how many years separate you from your last chemistry class, you may or may not remember the definition of a catalyst; a compound that facilitates a chemical reaction without being consumed by the reaction. Many reactions cannot happen efficiently, or at all, without the presence of catalysts.

A prime example of such reaction is the conversion of hydrocarbons; e.g. methane, a major component found in natural gas, converts to hydrogen and syngas‡. The catalyst used for this conversion typically have two strikes against them: they are quite costly, and they are deactivated during the chemical reaction.

“You have to continuously supply catalyst to keep the reaction going, which further increases the cost,” said Dr. Nicolas Abatzoglou, professor of Chemical Engineering and director of GREEN-TPV Research Center at the Université de Sherbrooke. In business terms, this means less efficient production.

For the past several years, Dr. Abatzoglou, who also serves as BioFuelNet’s Conversion Theme Leader, has been working to make the conversion reaction, called “reforming” more efficient, and thus commercially viable. Hence, the heart of his mission is to create a better catalyst. After the requisite trial and error at the lab bench, he and his research team hit pay dirt in 2010. Dr Abatzoglou said, “for a more robust and resistant compound than the products used in the industry.”

When he compared his new catalyst to commercial available alternatives, not only there was an increased yield, but also the catalyst stayed active for a longer duration. The scientific explanation for the achieved output is due to a more resistant “catalytic fouling,” a process that gradually degrades the compound. As Dr. Abatzoglou explained, a longer-lasting catalyst has the two-pronged benefit of saving costs and sparing the environment from the impact of discarding fouled catalyst. The US patent for his creation came through in 2012.

With the basic research behind them, the researchers set out to test the new catalyst on a wider scale through a joint collaboration with BioFuelNet and Enerkem Inc., a green chemical company that uses advanced gasification technology to convert a variety of feedstocks into biofuels and other chemicals. The collaborative work with Enerkem will help steer the research towards a viable and competitive process in the open market.

Enerkem’s laboratory in Edmonton, the company’s first full-scale commercial “waste-to-alcohols” facility, is in the midst of testing the novel catalyst, and results that are obtained to date are rather encouraging.

“The catalyst did just as well at the Enerkem laboratory facilities as it did in our lab,” he continued, “we’ve now established, in our own laboratories, the high yield and stability of the catalyst for over 500 hours of operation within a range of conditions.” This further suggests that this novel technology has the potential to move towards an industrial scale.

Although Dr. Abatzoglou finds his greatest comfort zone in the process lab and in technology transfer, he said BioFuelNet could play an important role in bringing his work to industry’s attention. Indeed, his research is linked with BioFueNet’s Integrated Thermal Biorefinery Task Force, a group of experts focused on enhancing the thermochemical conversion of mass across the value chain. The Task Force provides a framework to integrate the technology with downstream processing, transportation, and use of end products.

“Any company that makes biofuel is a potential client, as well as companies producing hydrogen,” said Dr. Abatzoglou. Given that more than 80 percent of global hydrogen production comes from natural gas, the catalyst’s use can extend to this sector. Abatzoglou added, “the efficiency of our catalyst could make it commercially viable to producing hydrogen and syngas, and not only can it be derived from natural gas, but also from almost any methane-rich gas.” This includes biogases produced during anaerobic fermentation, such as landfill gas. “Methane-rich gases can often be environmental nuisances, and the search for ways to transform them into useful fuels and products is a very important research priority at present.”

If the cost of using biogas as a “starter” becomes comparable with the cost of initiations from fossil fuels, the possibilities for green biofuel production increase; an obvious boon for the environment. Industrial applications could include solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) for efficient production of electricity and third-generation liquid biofuels like green diesel and gasoline.

In the meantime, Dr. Abatzoglou and his research associates are back at the lab bench, exploring more mechanisms to enhance the performance of his novel catalyst. He has enlisted several of his students to work on the effort, and takes his role as their mentor very seriously. “They’re the society’s future technological leaders,” he emphasized.

If his catalyst reveals its chemical secrets, Dr. Abatzoglou hopes to keep tweaking the molecule to achieve improvements in efficiency. “There’s no reason to stop progressing from where we are now.”

Project: BioFuelNet Success Story (catalysts)
Contributing Author: Gabrielle Bauer
Supervisor: Annie Webb

About the Author

Gabrielle Bauer has been a freelance writer for the past 20 years. She writes magazine articles for a general audience and specialized materials for the medical, business, and clean-energy sectors. She has also written two books and received several national writing awards. She lives with her husband and two teenage children in Toronto.

BioFuelNet Canada (BFN) is an integrated community of academic researchers, industry partners and government representatives who engage in collaborative initiatives to accelerate the development of sustainable advanced biofuels. BFN's research is funded through a mix of government and private contributions, and is structured around the themes of feedstock, conversion, utilization, and social, economic and environmental sustainability. BFN's activities expand far beyond academic research, extending to online courses and webinars, large-scale networking events, business-to-business matchmaking, investment tracking and intelligence, and policy consulting.

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