Chemical Makers Think Small

Nanotechnology developments are advancing along a broad front.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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"That input helps us to define what we need to aim for when we are developing next-generation catalysts," confirms Adarme.

Many new refineries outside the U.S. are designed for full-conversion hydrocracking to maximize diesel yields. And nanotechnology is playing a role in creating better catalysts. "… We have been working with the catalyst development teams to develop a new catalyst specifically for the second-stage service. We are in the process of commercializing this catalyst. The early indications are that it will unlock 6–7% more diesel from a two-stage hydrocracker compared with previous products," notes van Dijk.

"We have other approaches, too, for example in enhanced oil recovery. We use water for this and nanoparticles help us to tune the water for what is needed for each specific reservoir. We are also developing ways of using nanoparticles to relay information back from oil and gas reservoirs. So in the oil and gas industry we have used nanotechnology for many years, but we are really only at the start of the enormous potential that it has for us," Kapusta stresses.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), Arlington, Va., has added an extra three years and $12 million to its original commitment to the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. In addition, the center's roster of industrial partners has swelled from the original six to 27 — including Ashland, Chevron Phillips Chemical and DuPont.

The center focuses on using nanotechnology to find new catalysts for making chemicals from biorenewable resources. To this end, it has brought together researchers who specialize in both chemical and biological catalysts to develop sustainable technologies.

Researchers have made significant progress in designing catalysts for converting pyrones to high-value chemicals, notes Robert Davis, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., and head of the center's research into chemical catalyst design. The researchers also have developed technologies that convert carboxylic acids to alpha olefins used to make detergents and other chemicals, he adds.

Other researchers have used E. coli to produce the highest yields of carboxylic acids reported so far, says Jackie Shanks, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State, who heads the center's microbial metabolic engineering research efforts. The researchers also have improved the ability of E. coli to resist the toxicity of the acids, she adds.

Meanwhile, the European Union has awarded €4 million ($5.1 million) to a new research project to develop carbon materials to replace the precious metals needed in catalysis. The research aims to make the production of chemicals and commodities greener, while enabling the European process industry to keep its worldwide competitive edge.

The project is called "Freecats — doped carbon nanostructures as metal-free catalysts." Nine European research institutions and technology enterprises are working on the project, which is being coordinated by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.

"Metal-free materials with catalysis properties that are equally as good as precious metals do not exist naturally, so Freecats is aimed at developing new materials. Using nanotechnology, with atoms as building blocks, we can build carbon structures capable of binding or transforming substances in desired ways," explains Magnus Rønning of the university's department of chemical engineering, who is leading the effort.

One of the three applications chosen for Freecats is the production of light olefins. Demand for these chemicals is increasing globally, but the current use of platinum-based catalysts isn't seen as sustainable because they suffer from low selectivity and short lives and also are costly and polluting.

Action also is occuring in dendritic polymers or dendrimers. These are nanostructures that can be built atom-by-atom that hold great promise for applications in both biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Effectively they marry a drug to a "container" that's then delivered with extreme precision to patients, overcoming the more scattergun approach of traditional delivery systems.

Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., which was awarded the world's first patents on dendrimers following their discovery in its research labs in 1979, reached an agreement with Starpharma Holdings, Melbourne, Australia, and Dendritic Nanotechnologies (DNT), Midland Mich., earlier this year. It provides the two with ownership or access to Dow's dendrimer patent portfolio. Now, Starpharma has granted AstraZeneca, London, rights to test certain proprietary Starpharma oncology molecules.

Meanwhile, Dow Europe, Zurich, Switzerland, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding last year, is working with the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies (Rusnano), Moscow, to identify potential areas of cooperation for large-scale projects in areas such as energy efficiency, lightweight materials and life sciences. (Rusnano was established by the Russian government in 2007 with the aim of helping the country achieve annual sales of nano-enabled products of 900 billion Rubles ($28.6 billion) by 2015.)

For its part, ExxonMobil Chemical, Houston, is using nanotechnology to improve tire innerliners. Made from the company's proprietary Exxcore dynamically vulcanized alloy resin, the advanced innerliners are as light and thin as a plastic bag and require up to 80% less material than conventional innerliners. That can mean a weight reduction of as much as seven pounds for a passenger car. Moreover, they boast leading-edge inflation pressure retention loss rates, which help the tires handle better and last longer. The lower loss rates also reduce rolling resistance, leading to improved vehicle fuel economy and a corresponding reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

ExxonMobil expects further nanotechnology developments to increase the amount of halobutyl rubber in its innerliner formulations — for even better air retention and performance.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's  Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at


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