1 March 2016

Greener chemistry through renewable energy

chemistry research

Solar, hydro and wind energy will continue to blossom in the effort to reduce climate change. But green energy has even bigger potential. For one group of researchers, headed by chemists based at the University of Copenhagen, green energy can also help make chemical production greener, safer and more decentralised.

Professor Jan Rossmeisl at his University of Copenhagen, Department of Chemistry laboratory. Photo. Jes Andersen.

Jan Rossmeisl is an electrochemistry professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Chemistry and head of the upcoming ProActiveE Research Project. He hopes that this new concept will come to be for chemistry what 3D printing has become for manufacturing. The collaborative project includes participants from the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Stockholm University, the start-up HPNow ApS and the Danish catalysis giant Haldor Topsøe A/S. The project has received DKK 15 million from Innovation Fund Denmark.

Toxic and explosive precusors require centralized infrastructure

Most chemically derived products, from sneakers to headache remedies, are produced with oil or natural gas precursors. This means that many intermediate products are either toxic or explosive. Production occurs through what is known as heterogeneous catalysis, a process that typically requires high pressure and high temperatures. As a result, most chemical manufacturing processes tend to be carried out at large chemical plants.

Benign feedstock gives new possibilities in developing countries

If electrochemical processes are used instead, more benign precursors can be employed. Jan Rossmeisl explains:

“This is an entirely new way of thinking about chemical production. Instead of building enormous chemical plants, production can be decentralised. Instead of having to store large quantities of chemicals, the production of chemicals can be undertaken where needed, as needed.”

“This approach is promising for developing countries in particular, and can make an enormous difference.”

Three different reactions

ProActiveE will study three very different types of reactions where electrochemical production can be of great advantage:

  • Hydrogen peroxide is used for disinfection in health services, but could also be a greener alternative to chlorine in swimming pools. However, hydrogen peroxide is unstable and fresh supplies must constantly be procured. Local production, using surplus green energy, would be highly beneficial.
  • Dimethyl carbonate is a “green” solvent that can replace toxic molecules used today. ProActiveE hopes to produce dimethyl carbonate using green energy.
  • Propene oxidation is an important process in the production of plastics that might be better controlled in electrochemical cells.

Hard to develop stable, active and selective catalysts

The greatest challenge for the five project partners will be to develop stable, active and selective materials that can catalyse “mild” reactions. A precondition for success is that the researchers can understand and control how these reactions occur upon the catalyst surfaces, all the way down to the atomic level.

Essential to replace fossil precursor chemicals

If the project succeeds, the vast quantities of oil used today for chemical production can be replaced. And this is a must, according to Rossmeisl.

“In the long run, there is no alternative to these methods. Besides the risk of explosions and toxic by-products, oil is a limited resource, for which we must discover alternatives.”

Fundamental science in tandem with business development

The project will run for a 4-year period. Besides developing new chemical production methods, the project participants will also investigate commercial areas in which these new methods might be applied.