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Using neutrons to develop a catalyst for greener fuels

16 December 2019

UK scientists working with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have used neutron scattering to help develop a catalyst that converts biomass into fuel efficiently, potentially leading to a more sustainable source of petrochemicals for use in industry.

Converting biomass into light olefins – the group of petrochemicals that includes ethene, propene and butene – requires a catalyst. Previously this has required a lot of energy to convert the waste from organic matter such as wood or grass. Researchers led by the University of Manchester designed a highly efficient zeolite catalyst that uses less energy to produce the olefins from renewable biomass sources.

The team tested the zeolite – a porous material often used in catalysis – at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, the UK’s Diamond Light Source and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to determine its atomic structure.

The zeolite, called NbAlS-1, has an impressive yield of more than 99 percent but requires significantly less energy compared to its predecessors during any reaction. It can be used to convert raw materials from leftover agricultural waste into butene, an energy-rich gas used by the chemical and petroleum industries to make plastics, polymers and liquid fuels traditionally derived from crude oil with its associated environmental impacts. The team's research is published in the journal Nature Materials.

The scientists designed the zeolite to require less energy to break the strong bonds formed from elements such as carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen by replacing its silicon atoms with niobium and aluminium. The substitution creates a chemically unbalanced state that promotes bond separation and radically reduces the need for high degrees of heat treatments.

Synchrotron X-ray diffraction measurements at the UK's Diamond Light Source were used to determine the catalyst's atomic structure and complementary inelastic neutron scattering (INS) measurements of how the zeolite interacts with the biomass fuel (in this case γ-valerolactone) were made on the TOSCA neutron spectrometer at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

“The TOSCA instrument is ideally suited for such studies since INS spectroscopy is sensitive to the vibrations of hydrogen atoms and the instrument is optimised to deliver an outstanding spectral resolution. This means it’s possible to study very subtle changes in the spectra, i.e. detection of even weak interaction between reaction compounds.” said co-investigator on the project Dr Svemir Rudic from the ISIS Facility.

"There's a lot of trial and error associated with designing a high-performance catalyst such as the one we've developed," said corresponding author Dr Sihai Yang at the University of Manchester. "The more we understand how catalysts work, the more we can guide the design process of next-generation materials."

Notes to editors

Quantitative production of butenes from biomass-derived γ-valerolactone catalysed by hetero-atomic MFI zeolite was published in Nature Materials on 16 December 2019.

INS measurements for this study were carried out on the TOSCA instrument at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. TOSCA is an indirect geometry spectrometer optimised for the study of molecular vibrations in the solid state. Science on Tosca includes studies of catalysts, hydrogen storage materials, hydrogen bonded systems, advanced materials, biological samples and organic compounds such as drugs.

ISIS Neutron and Muon Source produces beams of neutrons and muons that allow scientists to study materials at the atomic level using a suite of instruments, often described as “super-microscopes”.

About the Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB and the ESO telescopes in Chile. STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise.

Last updated: 28 January 2020

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