Major breakthough in catalyst for cleaner 'green' petrochemical materials

November 17 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2016   Rating: 5 Hot

What happened?

A group of researchers from Boston College and MIT have created a new catalyst that could reduce the negative environmental impact of hydrocarbon or ‘petrochemical’ derived materials found in everyday products.

[Don’t run away! Big words, but simple concepts!]

The new catalyst is used in a very common and energy intensive process known as olefin metathesis. Just think of olefins as simple carbon and hydrogen packets (image of ethylene) that are used to make more complex chains that form the backbone of materials used in everything from cleaner fuels, soaps, bags, to pharmaceuticals. The process, ‘metathesis’, simply means transforming the order of AB + CD into AD +BC

How does a simple packet of hydrogen and carbon vary so much in different industry applications? In the most simple terms – the difference between a ‘good’ compound for people and the Earth, from a ‘bad’ compound is the use of additives (other elements) and the shape of the molecule chain (polymers). These variations make materials more or less reactive to things like light, water, and heat. It also makes it more or less soluble, biodegradable or toxic. The goal is to create compounds that break down into non-toxic elements that do not harm ecosystems. The more precise we are in building key polymer materials, the less harmful waste we produce.

Why is this important to the future? Another step towards ‘greener’ hydrocarbon materials
The BC/MIT catalyst will help to reduce the waste and hazardous by products of this massive industrial chemical reaction as we try to make chemistry more ‘green’ and environmentally friendly.

“In order for chemists to gain access to molecules that can enhance the quality of human life, we need reliable, highly efficient, selective and environmentally friendly chemical reactions,” said Amir Hoveyda, Professor and Chemistry Department chairman at BC. “Discovering catalysts that promote these transformations is one of the great challenges of modern chemistry.”

What to watch- Applied Engineering

Applying research

The team led by Professors Amir Hoveyda of BC and Richard Schrock of MIT will publish their finding in the current online edition of the journal Nature.

The next step is building out the range of metal based catalysts (molybdenum, nickel, ruthenium) and applying variations to different types of reactions. ‘The discovery of catalysts with stable configurations and flexible structures is expected to allow chemists to design, prepare and develop new chemical transformations that furnish unprecedented levels of reactivity and selectivity’, according to the co-authors, which include BC researchers Steven J. Malcolmson, Simon J. Meek, and Elizabeth S. Sattely.

Oelifin Meta… what?

This BC/MIT catalyst breakthrough is a perfect example of a major fundamental advance that could actually improve the environmental outcome of our current petrochemical based materials world until alternatives are developed. The key is translating its significance to general audiences. It is not perfect, but it is better and a step towards a greener world.

About the Research The findings mark the latest discovery from the long-standing collaboration between the Hoveyda and Schrock labs, work that has been supported by more than $3.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Olefins are also referred to as alklyenes

Image credit: WikiMedia

MIT Press Release

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