Chemical and biomolecular engineering researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have recently achieved something truly impressive: they've managed to dramatically improve the process of methane catalysis, by a factor of 30, and using lower temperatures. What this could mean in terms of environmental protection and energy generation is nothing less than game-changing. Natural gas production is at an all-time high in the U.S. and will replace much of our dependence on oil and coal if we can burn it efficiently and without methane pollution. Methane is also a by-product of industries such as waste management, animal farming, and oil extraction (the iconic flame at the top of an oil well is methane being released from underground), where its containment is an ongoing challenge.
[Ultramodern Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, where methane is generated from decomposing waste, photo courtesy of NYC.gov]
Burning methane for fuel and to prevent its release into the atmosphere (where it does more harm than carbon dioxide by a large margin) has always been a good idea, in theory. Practically, methane is stubbornly stable, and catalytic burners have required high heat and substantial materials usage to convert it without losing a significant portion to seepage and the subsequent pollution. This quantum leap in process efficiency stands to make burning methane much more affordable and safe, which means more people will do it and we'll all live in a cleaner world with fewer greenhouse gases. It might mean we see natural gas-powered vehicles sooner as well, since one obstacle to that technology has been catalyzing the methane that is its primary component.
The team that is pioneering this remarkable research includes members of Penn's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular engineering (CBE), as well as colleagues at two universities in Italy and Spain. CBE professor Raymond J. Gorte was the PI on this joint project, the results of which were published last month in an article in Science. The breakthrough in methane catalysis efficiency came not as the result of using new materials per se, but in a novel method of assembly for the two primary ingredients: palladium (a nanotech metal) and cerium oxide. The key was wrapping the ceria around the palladium core via a self-assembling solution process to create a porous protective shell. They then took the "supramolecular structures" and scattered them on a sheet of hydrophobic aluminum. The sheet keeps the molecules from clumping together, which they’re prone to do under heat, and the ceria shell keeps the active metal nanoparticles from degrading as quickly.
[A representation of the newly developed catalyst on an aluminium oxide surface depicts the core-shell structure. Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania]
According to Dr. Gorte (in a Penn news release):
“These techniques are common in the nanotechnology community, but I think it’s a novel approach in making catalyst materials.”
The paper abstract concludes with these results:
Electron microscopy and other structural methods revealed that the Pd [palladium] cores remained isolated even after heating the catalyst to 850°C. Enhanced metal-support interactions [the core-shell structure] led to exceptionally high methane oxidation, with complete conversion below 400°C and outstanding thermal stability under demanding conditions.
Co-authors on this project include Penn doctoral candidate Kevin Bakhmutsky; Italian researchers from the University of Trieste Matteo Cargnello (now a visiting scholar at Penn), Dr. Paolo Fornasiero and Dr. Tiziano Montini; and Spanish researchers from the University of Cadiz José J. Calvino, Juan José Delgado and Juan Carlos Hernández Garrido.
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. looks forward to bringing basic science researchers and professional lab equipment vendors together in Philadelphia each spring to talk shop and eat good food at our two Philly tradeshow events, to be held next on May 15-16, 2013:
- Philadelphia BioResearch Product Faire at the University of Pennsylvania, 5/16/2013
- Thomas Jefferson BioResearch Product Faire Front Line event at Thomas Jefferson University, 5/15/2013
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Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. is a full-service event marketing and planning company producing on-campus life science research tradeshows nationwide for going on 21 years. We plan and promote each event to bring the best products and services to the best research campuses across the country. Life science researchers, purchasing agents, and lab managers are actively invited to attend to see the latest products and equipment and discuss their laboratory tool and service needs. See our Nationwide Show Schedule for 2013.