• News


Turbo test for chemical catalysts

Thanks to a process developed by Prof. Dr. Ferdi Schüth, Director at the Max- Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim (Germany), and the scientists and technologists of hte Aktiengesellschaft in Heidelberg (Germany) headed by Dr. Dirk Demuth and Dr. Wolfram Stichert, the search for new and more effective catalysts can now be carried out up to 100 times faster than was possible just a few years ago. For their invention the scientists have been nominated for the "Deutscher Zukunftspreis", the German President's prize for technology and innovation. They are one of three teams that have made it into the final round of the competition. As reagents which accelerate chemical reactions, catalysts help to save energy, extract more useful products from fossil raw materials and enable the commercial viability of new energy sources, such as hydrogen and fuels based on wood waste.

The initial response was extremely skeptical. People doubted whether our high throughput system could produce results that would be usable on an industrial scale," says Prof. Ferdi Schüth, Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung and originator of the idea for the turbo test. Although the pharmaceuticals industry has been producing medically active substances for new drugs based on this principle for some time now, many doubted that the method could also work under the considerably harsher conditions encountered in oil refineries and in the production of chemical raw materials. "Today, almost all the petrochemical companies that use our technology are looking for tailor-made catalysts," explains Dirk Demuth, Chief Executing Officer of hte AG, in which BASF has held a majority shareholding since 2008. The method developed by the nominated scientists and the hte team, which is based on a parallel and automated approach, enables the simultaneous chemical testing of over 100 catalysts. This makes the search for new and more efficient catalysts between ten and 100 times faster than before. The invention represents a major asset for the chemicals industry, as almost all of its products are created with the help of catalysts.

This test process has proven successful not only for applications in the petrochemicals sector, but also in numerous other areas: for example, for testing catalysts needed to transform biomass like wood and straw into fuel, catalysts that can convert chemical raw materials and catalysts that manage with smaller volumes of costly platinum in the conversion of automobile exhaust gases. Materials for more powerful batteries that provide electricity for electric cars can also be identified using this technology. "The fact that all our competitors are now adopting similar approaches proves just how successful our concept is," says Wolfram Stichert, Chief Financial Officer of hte AG.

Complex technology masters difficult reaction conditions

Before the innovative test method for catalysts was developed, laboratory technicians performed the tests manually in individual reactor tubes. Running these tests in parallel reactor tubes and, if possible, automatically, meant that the researchers had to overcome numerous technical challenges. Firstly, the conditions under which screening for catalysts is conducted are considerably more demanding than those for the standard high throughput tests previously practiced in pharmaceutical research. The reactor tubes must be able to withstand temperatures of 500 to 1000 degrees Celsius, high pressure levels and aggressive chemicals - sometimes for several weeks. The materials used therefore have to be very tough. A super heat-conductive alloy placed between the individual reactors ensures that the temperature in all the tubes remains constant, even if a reaction releases additional heat. The results are only usable if the tests take place under constant and controllable conditions - and preferably similar to those arising in industrial processes. This parallel screening technique now produces results otherwise only obtainable using pilot systems.

Parallel reactions alone are not sufficient to accelerate the identification of new catalysts, however; the reactions also have to occur more or less automatically. Metering of the raw materials for the test reactions is therefore computer-controlled and done via a shared feed line or individually controlled valves in the reaction tubes. A system at the other end collects the gaseous reaction products by means of specially designed valves. A robotic arm also collects liquid products from the individual tubes. Depending on how well the researchers can predict what will happen in the course of a reaction, they analyze the product mix using different techniques - a gas chromatograph and, if necessary, a mass spectrometer. Special software is used to extract the results from these data, which the chemists can then use to evaluate the catalysts being tested.

These results are particularly relevant for industrial applications because the now 160 hte employees tailor the tests individually to each process. They build systems for their customers from individual modules, taking into account the specific conditions of their routine industrial operation. With their successful test system for catalysts, the nominated scientists are contributing to more economical use of energy and resources. "Catalysts that help us save energy, use fossil raw materials more efficiently and access regenerative energy sources will become increasingly important in the future," they jointly emphasize. The German Future Prize for Technology and Innovation is awarded by the German President to researchers and developers who succeed in launching products resulting from outstanding research onto the market. The winner will be announced on the ZDF television channel on December 1st in Berlin.

Source: hte AG