Scientists and researchers at Stanford University and SLAC (formerly Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) National Accelerator Laboratory, were able to develop a breakthrough synthetic catalyst that can speed up chemical reactions similar to the way natural enzymes act on living organisms.
The research and development team led by Matteo Cargnello, a chemical engineering assistant professor at Stanford, drew inspiration from nature. According to Professor Cargnello, their goal was to mimic how natural enzymes functioned in a laboratory environment, by developing an artificial catalyst that can convert substances into useful compounds.
The researchers experimented on designing a catalyst made from palladium nanocrystals. Palladium are precious metals found embedded in layers of porous polymers, also having special catalytic properties. This is similar to how common organic protein enzymes present in nature also have trace metals embedded in their core, like iron and zinc.
Using electron microscopic imagery created by Andrew Herzing of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Stanford researchers were able to see the trace palladium in their catalysts.
Next Goal: Methanol Production
The research and development team are optimistic that their discovery could lead the way to the development of industrial catalysts capable of generating methanol at a lower cost and using less energy.
Methanol has widespread applications, and is seeing an increasing demand as alternative to conventional gasoline in light of its characteristics as a low-emissions fuel.
However, most methanol fuel is produced by way of a two-step process that involves heating natural gas to temperatures of about 1,800 F or 1,000 C. Aside from being energy-intensive, the process also emits large amounts of carbon dioxide, which as we all know, is the main greenhouse gas that has been causing climate change.
According to Professor Cargnello, their long term objective is to develop a catalyst that will behave the way microbes use a natural enzyme known as methane monooxygenase as a means for metabolizing methane. He added that
“The ability to convert methane to methanol at low temperatures is considered a holy grail of catalysis”
The Synthetic Catalyst Proves Successful as Producing the Same Reactions as Natural Enzymes
The researchers under lead author Andrew Riscoe, a Stanford PhD student, said they initially focused on determining if the artificial catalyst they created will function like natural enzymes. For this purpose, the research team used the carbon reaction model to test if it will function in the same way natural enzymes speed up the conversion of toxic carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide (CO2).
Based on the success of the carbon dioxide experiment, Professor Cargnello and his colleagues proceeded with testing their synthetic catalyst to convert methane into methanol. Aside from being regarded as a cleaner and cheaper alternative to gasoline, methanol is also widely used in the industrial sector for the production of plastic, textiles and paints, just to name a few.