Scientists develop liquid catalyst that could save energy and CO2 emissions in numerous production processes.
The chemical industry is the third largest industrial contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, with five to six percent. This share is expected to double by 2050, as the worldwide demand for materials is constantly growing, figures from the consulting firm Deloitte show. Almost all global value chains and over 90 percent of all manufactured goods are linked to the chemical industry. It also consumes ten percent of fossil fuels. Therefore, a climate-friendly transformation of chemical processes is essential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the industry is considered extremely difficult to electrify, so other approaches are needed, such as switching to more environmentally friendly production technologies.
Under the leadership of the Australian University of Sydney, a process has now been developed which, according to the researchers involved, offers an “unprecedented opportunity” to replace energy-intensive chemical processes that date back to the early 20th century. Liquid metals are used instead of the usual catalysts made of solid materials. A catalyst is a substance that accelerates and facilitates chemical reactions without being involved in the reaction itself. Typically, the chemical industry uses solid metals or metal compounds to produce plastics, fertilizers, fuels, and raw materials, among other things. However, these processes require temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius and a high energy input.
Gallium Creates “Super Catalyst”
In the new process, nickel and tin were dissolved in a liquid metal based on gallium instead of solid materials. This technology metal has a melting point of just under 30 degrees Celsius, enabling researchers to gain access to liquified nickel and tin at lower temperatures. For comparison, the melting point of solid nickel is 1,455 degrees Celsius – so the efficiency and energy savings are considerable. Because atoms in liquid metals are arranged more randomly and can move more freely than in solid substances, the researchers say that using liquid metals creates a “unique mobility” that makes it easier for the materials to come into contact with the chemical reactions. In particular, the liquified nickel obtained in this way is a veritable “super catalyst,” which is already effective at very low temperatures, explains Dr. Junma Tang, one of the project leaders.
According to the researchers, the formula could be applied to various chemical reactions; liquid metals could be the long-awaited solution to make the chemical industry greener.
More on gallium and how it could decarbonize the chemical industry: Last year, researchers already developed a liquid catalyst based on gallium to make large-scale processes cheaper and more energy efficient. Also, a first step in Australia was taken to neutralize and store CO2 in chemical production using liquid gallium.
Photo: iStock/Igor Krasilov