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.”
The way to improve fuel cells, energy storage devices and solar cells is to evolve our ability to control the way molecules and photons flow through materials and lead to other reactions. We do not need to overcome the Laws of Physics, just improve the design of materials at the molecular level.
What happened? Cornell University researchers have designed platinum nanoparticles that automatically assemble into complex, ordered patterns and can be used for efficient and low cost catalysts in fuel cells and other micro-fabrication processes.
“The challenge with metals is that their high surface energies cause the particles to cluster,” explains , led by Professor Uli Wiesner who led the team. “This tendency to aggregate makes it difficult to coax metal particles into lining up in an orderly fashion, which is a critical step in forming ordered materials.”
Instead of relying on the traditional (and imprecise) ‘heat it and beat it’ approach” to structuring metals, Professor Wiesner, Scott C. Warren, and their coworkers prepared their materials through self-assembly of block copolymers and stabilized platinum nanoparticles. This ‘bottom up’ approach can lower costs and improve the precision of material design.
Why is this important to the future of energy? We need breakthroughs in materials science that make energy systems cost effective and clean. Nanoscale science (billionth of a meter) and engineering is the platform of future innovation.
Fuel cell costs are based on two main factors: the cost of membranes (MEAs) that enable the reactions and manufacturing techniques to build the device. The way forward is to reduce the amount of precious metal catalysts needed in membranes, and also lower the cost of manufacturing materials around self-assembly. These metallic structures developed by the Cornell team could take us further down the road towards lower cost energy systems that go beyond traditional combustion energy conversion.
Bioenergy visionaries with algae and bacteria aren't the only players in town trying to corner the market on the 'future of biofuels'. We cannot forget the Chemists.
Biofuels are expanding along two paths- one is based on chemical engineering, the other on biological processes.
Chemistry vs Biology We can create biofuels by applying chemical engineering processes (e.g. ethanol via fermentation, or biodiesel via transesterfication) with high reliability and scale, but usually at a high cost.
Or we can let Mother Nature do the work. Biology taps the power of algae and bacteria that contain special enzymes that reorganize molecules into a format that can be used to make biofuels, or converted into electricity via a fuel cell.
Biology could offer lower cost and turn carbon emissions into a feedstock, but first we must overcome challenges of scaling up volume production, and the unpredictable nature of biomolecular systems.
Wisconsin Focuses on Path of Chemistry For now, chemical conversion is the more immediate opportunity and fits within the current paradigm of processing energy and materials feedstocks. And engineers are working to overcome the challenges to reduce the number of steps, and facilitate reactions at a lower temperature with non-toxic, abundant resources.
Now scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a two-step method to convert cellulose into a biofuel called DMF. Professor Ronald Raines and graduate student Joseph Binder highlight the two step process: First, they convert the cellulose of untreated biomass into the "platform" chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) which is used in 'a variety of valuable commodity chemicals'. Generally HMF is made using processed glucose or fructose rather than raw biomass.
Step Two: Creating a New Biofuel with Gasoline Qualities
Scientists at Penn State University and Virginia Commonwealth University have discovered a way to produce hydrogen using aluminum nanoparticles (billionth of a meter) that react with water molecules to split oygen and hydrogen bonds.
What does that mean?
The physical arrangment and exposure of the alumninum atoms determines its ability to split certain chemical bonds by binding oxygen and releasing hydrogen.
Three of the tested aluminum clusters produced hydrogen from water at room temperature.
This ground-breaking work is important because it confirms the belief held by catalysis researchers that nanoparticle 'geometries, not just electronic properties', effect the reaction performance of catalytic materials.
Hydrogen Production at Room Temperature (& Confusion of Hype vs Hope)
One of our goals at The Energy Roadmap.com is to promote Big Thinkers who are able to translate the complexities of thinking about the future of energy into basic language and simple concepts. Bio energy is an emerging energy area that is widely confused with its current manifestation (e.g. plant life; corn ethanol) versus its future evolution (e.g. algae, bacteria and synthetic biology). Once again, we turn to Steve Jurvetson- for a look at this changing bio energy landscape.
In this 4 minute ZDNET presentation clip from AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference held on September 10-12th, 2008, moderator Awais Khan of KPMG asks the panel if algae biofuels are up to task of addressing short-comings of high oil prices.
Looking forward – Synthetic Biology & Scalability
Jurvetson hints at global interest and the implications of accelerating changes via synthetic biology. Bill Green of Vantage Point Venture Partners”Bill Green of Vantage Point Venture Partners addresses the issue of scaling production based on biology.
Scaling is a commonly used barrier concept for most non-traditional forms of energy like solar and wind. Bio energy solutions (esp. algae/bacteria) will first have to overcome its own process complexities to compete against more predictable chemical engineering methods used in today’s energy industry.
Eco-Energy blogs seem to love stories about cleaner ways of making cement - which accounts for at least 5% global carbon dioxide emissions. Last year the viral story was a novel process developed by MIT students, and now Australian-based Zeobond is gaining a lot of attention. The company uses industry waste materials to reduce the environmental impact of cement material compounds.
The case for investing in a 'New Energy Economy' was just validated by one of the world's leading material solutions companies.
3M has announced the formal creation of its new Renewable Energy Division that will include two divisions dedicated to Energy Generation & Energy Management.
The Energy Generation Division will develop materials for solar, wind, geothermal and biofuel solutions such as films, tapes, coatings, encapsulants, sealants and adhesives to reduce costs and improve performance.
The Energy Management Division will focus on thermal efficiences (e.g. film efficiencies), membranes for energy storage devices (e.g. fuel cells, batteries) and other applications for the Automotive, Commercial Building and Residential market segments.
New Energy Economy depends on Advanced Nanostructured Materials This is big news for the cleantech sector. Energy is about interactions between light, molecules, metals, and heat. The only way to build a 'green' economy is to advance materials that make these interactions cleaner and lower cost.
3M has the resources to fundamentally change the performance-price points of cleantech materials. And it is a corporate stamp of approval on the idea that we must begin to move beyond extracting ancient stored energy (coal, oil and natural gas) and shift towards producing and storing energy using renewable resources that make clean electrons and clean molecules.
The vision of 'Green Chemisty' is to create the basic components used in making materials, energy, food and pharmaceuticals using sustainable practices, often without the use of petroleum based feedstocks.
The team led by Chemistry professor Chao-Jun (C.J.) Li discovered an entirely new way of synthesizing peptides by using simple reagents that will enable a lower cost method for building larger molecules.
Peptides are short polymer chains that Mother Nature uses as a foundation for building proteins and other bio-materials.
Creating a Simple, Low Cost Process “Currently, to generate peptides you must use a peptide synthesizer, an expensive piece of high-tech equipment,” explained Li, Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry. “You need to purchase every single separate amino acid unit that makes up the peptide, and feed them into the machine one by one, which then assembles them. Every time you need a new peptide, you need to synthesize it individually from scratch.”
The team's process is based on 'a single, simple “skeleton” peptide which can be modified into any other peptide needed with the addition of a simple reagent.'
Open Innovation, Access to All Not only has the team announced the process breakthrough, but it is taking the high road to advancing global efforts by opening the information to anyone.
“This is really an enabling new technology,” he added, “and since McGill has decided not to patent it, we’re making our method available to everyone. We are paying the journal’s open access fee, so anyone in the world can access the paper.”
The larger pores could be helpful in separating alcohol gases from water in creation of fuels from biomass, while the smaller pores can be used to store hydrogen as a solid.
We have featured a number of stories (below) on MOFs, and believe they are on a solid development path towards commercialization in a wide range of energy applications.
First synthesized in the mid 1990s, MOFs have the highest surface area of any known material. They can be used for 'separating (carbon-hydrogen rich) gases, acting as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions, and for storing gases as solids.'
The future of energy will be based on our mastering of interactions between basic units like light, molecules, and metals. MOFs provide human beings with a platform of unprecedented surface area that increase our ability to manipulate these interactions. They might play a critical role in enabling a new era of energy systems that go beyond 'extraction' of hydrocarbon reserves.
Why Science, Not Consumerism, is Needed to Move beyond the ‘Extraction’ Era of Energy
[Ok, this is a snarky post, but I'm leaving it up. It seems reasonable to assume that CNN would have a Producer, Writer or Intern make a stronger connection between 'hydrocarbons' like coal and oil that originated from biomass (plants and diatoms). Instead CNN frames algae like a space alien recipe.]
The CNN correspondents are clueless to the biological origins of oil and the basics of energy science- namely that everytime we drive our car we are breaking apart hydrogen-carbon bonds formed by ancient algae. So tapping the power of algae to bind molecules for energy feedstocks is not 'science fiction', it is Mother Nature.
[Peaking in snarky tone right there...] The clip shows how disconnected we are from understanding even the basics of energy systems and where energy comes from. (It's scary how many people I meet that still think 'fossil fuels' are ancient dinosaurs.) And it is not a surprise that shallow 'consuming green' strategies dominate public conversations, despite falling flat in terms of offering global solutions.
Could we get science back into the conversaton? How about teaching our children and news reporters the most basic '101' energy science. Oil is not pixie dust, it comes from somewhere.
CNN should educate its reporter on what they fill up in their gas tank. Because it's ancient algae.
Rethinking the Problem: Think Small, not Big Our current 'crisis' around energy and climate change has less to do with our relationship with the Planet, than it does our relationship with molecules.
To change our footprint on the Planet, we have to change our relationship with nature at the molecular level.
We are still living in an Industrial Age where we extract carbon-hydrogen bonds assembled by ancient plants and algae to power our world and to make plastic-based products. To stay within the Planet's carrying capacity, we have to change this relationship with molecules.
This is the next, yet to be written, chapter: The Nanoscale Era of Materials Engineering.
Industrial Age Part Two: Green Chemistry Why be hopeful? Scientists continue to move us closer to a new era of Industrial manufacturing based on a vision of 'Green Chemisty' in which we create the basic components used in making materials, energy, food and pharmaceuticals using more sustainable practices, often without the use of petroleum based feedstocks. Now we have another step forward.
“Using platinum clusters, we have devised a way to catalyze propane not only in a more environmentally friendly way, but also using far less energy than previous methods,” said Argonne scientist Stefan Vajda.
Researchers believe that this 'new class of catalysts may lead to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly synthesis strategies and the possible replacement of petrochemical feedstocks by abundant small alkanes.'
(Alkane? There's another funny word. But honestly, it's just a different arrangement of carbon and hydrogen! Whether you say 'ethelyne', 'human being' or 'breathing' it is just another funny way of saying carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.)
What happened? Acrylic glass, or polymethyl methacrylate, could soon be made out of sugars, alcohol, or even fatty acids. Acrylic glass, which is sold under the name plexiglass, is used as a non shattering alternative to glass, in items such as protective goggles and vehicle lights.
Dr. Thore Rohwerder and Dr. Roland H. Muller were able to come up with an alternative solution to creating acrylic glass. Instead of it being a purely chemical process, based on petrochmical raw materials, they have found a way to use renewable raw bio-materials instead.
Why is the important to the future?
The demand for arcylic glass is expected to rise in the next few years. Having an alternative method to create this glass would benefit as the demand increases. Using renewable materials is an easy, fast solution to appease this problem while also being beneficial to the environment.
What to watch
Using renewable bio-materials is a long way from becoming used in commercial acrylic glass, but to be thinking of such things is a step in the right direction. Companies, such as DuPont, have already started thinking of the next generation applications for bio-materials. In September 2007, DuPont and Plantic Technologies created a joint venture - the development and sale of renewably sourced polymers.