A group of Dutch researchers has produced a relatively inexpensive catalyst for use in Fischer-Tropsch reactors, opening up the possibility of a cheaper industrial process to make synthetic fuels from natural gas and biomass.

The Fischer-Tropsch process is used for producing fuels from natural gas, biomass or coal. The large reserves of shale gas and natural gas currently changing the world energy market have raised interest in Fischer-Tropsch technology. However, Fischer Tropsch reactors are huge, and typically use hundreds of tons of expensive catalysts such as cobalt.

The nanocobalt-ironoxide catalyst, which has been patented by oil firm Total, is the result of three years of work at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The process the UvA researchers have invented to produce the new catalyst is based on industrial techniques used by companies such as TDK during the 1960’s to manufacture magnetic tape for audio cassettes.

The process they use, described as “surface nucleation of a cobalt phase onto iron oxide colloids”, produces particles that have an average diameter of 10 nanometers and consist of an iron oxide core with a cobalt oxide shell. Subsequent simulations and tests have shown that the particles serve as excellent catalysts in the Fischer-Tropsch process and that their production process can be scaled-up for use in industry.

Gadi Rothenberg, project researcher from the Heterogenous Catalysis and Sustainable Chemistry group at the University of Amsterday, said: “Being a chemist, I love the idea of making something so accurate, the cobalt shells are only a few atoms thick, yet using a procedure that any high school student can repeat. We can’t compete with industrial research teams on facilities, but we can compete with them on ideas and innovation.”

The research is published in this months Angewandte Chemie.

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