Self-Regulating Reactors Promise Pluses

Research program aims to develop nanostructures that respond to varying conditions within a reactor by changing their size, shape or structure.

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The need to measure what’s happening within a reactor and even the risk of runaway reactions may be eliminated by self-regulating units that rely on nanostructures that respond to stimuli such as pH, heat and light, hope researchers in the U.K.

A collaborative research program underway at the University of Leeds, the University of Bath and the University of Glasgow aims to develop nanostructures that respond to varying conditions within a reactor by changing their size, shape or structure. These changes in turn could alter properties such as thermal conductivity and viscosity, as well as catalyst activity — and thus regulate the reactions.

“The research program is an important step towards producing the next generation of smart ‘small footprint,’ greener reactors,” says Yulong Ding, a professor in the Institute of Particle Science and Engineering at the University of Leeds.

“If the reactor can self-regulate, there’s no need for measurements. So, the measurement system becomes redundant or becomes a backup in case malfunction develops,” notes Ding. Such self-regulation also may provide a means to fend off runaway reactions, he believes. The researchers aim to target the technology at reactions that are highly exothermic or endothermic or prone to explosions, he adds.

The three-year program started in July and has the equivalent of about $2.6 million in funding from the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It focuses on designing and using molecular metal oxides and polymers as building blocks for nanoscale structures that could be dispersed in fluid or coated on reactor walls.

The researchers already have created such structures, ranging in size from a few nanometers to a few microns, and hope to have a demonstration unit at the end of the three years, says Ding. They also intend to explore the possibility of creating responsive catalysts by incorporating catalysts within these structures, he adds.
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