Fathoming failed catalysts for sustainable conversion of biomass

Catalysts are among the basic tools of the chemical industry. Most chemical processes in the industry are made more economical, faster or cleaner thanks to catalysts. Nevertheless, we still don’t quite know why many prospective catalysts fail to work. Evgeny Pidko of TU/e thinks that the key to finding out why this is lies in being able to design sustainable catalysts specifically for purposes like the conversion of biomass. To investigate this, he has obtained a Consolidator Grant of two million euros from the European Research Council.

Catalysts are materials that facilitate chemical reactions, without being part of the process. They often contain rare metals like palladium and ruthenium. Catalysts enable reactions to be faster or occur at lower temperatures, or generate less waste. This makes them particularly valuable. Often a catalyst does not comprise a single substance but systems of connected catalysts, or catalytic systems.

Conventionally, the creation of a catalyst begins with the discovery of a substance that is catalytically active. Scientists then investigate the fundamental workings of the catalyst. This approach has its disadvantages in that it is not clear why many prospective catalysts don’t work and this results in many potential catalysts being overlooked. In addition, catalysts sometimes lose their effectiveness over time, often for reasons unknown.

Through his project known as DeLiCat (Death and Life of Catalysts) Pidko now wants to fundamentally fathom why some catalysts don’t ‘live’ while others do. He will be using the latest insights in the field of chemical theory for computer simulations to unravel the complex reaction processes that determine whether catalysts ‘live or die’. He wants to use this knowledge to design multifunctional catalytic systems without using expensive rare metals. Moreover, these systems must continue to be effective and generate little waste. Pidko will undertake experiments to find out whether the systems he has design work as intended.

The sustainable conversion of biomass into useful basic chemicals is one of the two main applications Pidko and his co-researchers are targeting in the project. Another is using alcohols as a storage medium for hydrogen. Catalysts must ensure that hydrogen can be stored fast and be extracted equally quickly. Earlier work in which Pidko was involved led to a rapid method for hydrogen storage in formic acid. Methanol would be even better, however, because it is capable, in principle, of storing three times as much hydrogen. This would make hydrogen storage in, for example, cars with a fuel cell a very interesting prospect. “If we could make a methanol battery, that would be a real breakthrough,” says Pidko.

Apart from Pidko, four PhD students will be working on the study along with a postdoc.