Chemical Makers Think Small

Nanotechnology developments are advancing along a broad front.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Nanotechnology is becoming increasingly important to chemical companies as they strive to improve processes and products.

BASF, Lugwigshafen, Germany, for one, maintains that nanotechnology is key to successful innovations in many of its different business areas — including energy, lighting, water treatment, health, electronics and automotive.

For example, the company is using nanostructures to develop efficent and flexible organic photovoltaics to convert infrared light into electrical energy. BASF also is relying on nano technology to improve organic light emitting diodes; it's developing a nanofilm that consumes 50% less energy than existing energy-saving lamps.

Nanotechnology also offers decisive advantages in water treatment, claims the company. Its ultrafiltration membranes with pores measuring about 20 nm enable filtering germs, bacteria and viruses from both process and drinking water.

In collaboration with Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., the company is using nanotechniques to solve the riddle of how biofilms containing life-threatening infections grow and spread. The crucial processes here occur on the nanometer scale. In a similar vein, BASF also is investigating new nanoformulations for a range of medicinal substances, especially those that aren't readily soluble in water and, therefore, are poorly absorbed in the body after ingestion.

The company already offers nanoparticles for polishing the surface of wafers used in microchips. Also in the electronics sector, BASF is developing high-resolution nanometer-thin defect-free homogeneous layers that can be stacked together to create flexible displays.

In automotive, BASF has introduced a clearcoat in which, during curing, nanostructures form in the film through crosslinking — ensuring the clearcoat permanently retains its scratch resistance and still looks new even after many years.

However, crystalline nanostructures known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) have been generating most interest recently — as a way to store natural gas for vehicles. The three-dimensional MOFs contain nanosized pores that provide high porosity and vast internal surface area, allowing storage of comparatively large amounts of gas. Cars with fuel tanks with such MOFs may be able to travel twice as far on a single tankful as possible now, says the company.

BASF researchers have developed a solvent-free method for industrial-scale manufacture of aluminum MOFs (Figure 1).

"With the innovative production process, we can now manufacture MOFs by the tonne and in that way enable their commercialization," says Ulrich Müller, head of MOF research at the company's process research and chemical engineering division. Because the manufacturing process only uses water, avoiding organic solvents altogether, the method is said to be particularly safe and eco-friendly. "The high material yield also makes it very efficient," Müller comments.

As a result of its MOF work, in mid-September BASF received the Pierre Potier Prize. Initiated seven years ago by the two French chemical associations —Fédération Française pour les Sciences de la Chimie (FFC) and l'Union des Industries Chimiques (UIC) — the award honors innovations that support sustainable development.

"Nanotechnology has helped us to understand how we can make catalysts live longer and how we can make them more efficient," says Sergio Kapusta, chief scientist, materials, for Shell Global Solutions International, Amsterdam.

Important to this work is the company's close affiliation with Criterion Catalysts & Technologies, Houston.

"Advances in nanotechnology have helped us to optimize the active sites, which led to a next-generation Centera catalyst technology for hydrocracking pretreat," notes Raul Adarme, Criterion's general manager, hydrocracking. It assists refiners in increasing run length, processing more difficult feedstocks, or raising throughput (Figure 2). "Centera products are providing performance improvements in the start-of-run, weighted-average bed temperature of up to 14°C lower than previous-generation products," he adds.

"It is worth noting that Criterion's R&D is, in part, informed by the operational feedback received from Shell Global Solutions' customers. For instance, we provide a lot of feedback to the catalyst researchers about what to develop; we tell them what our clients need," explains Nicolaas van Dijk, Shell's global process technology manager, hydroprocessing.

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