Catalyzing a new generation of natural gas engines
Chemical engineering professor one of six UAlberta researchers receiving NSERC Strategic Partnership Grants for promising collaborations.
By MICHAEL BROWN
Up until about 15 years ago, catalysis—the process of using a material to both speed up a reaction and determine what products are formed—required equal amounts of know-how and, according to chemical engineering professor Robert Hayes, black magic.
“We had no way to design catalysts. And because they would change so much under temperature, the best way to develop a catalyst was, to use a British expression, to suck it and see, trial and error,” remembers Hayes, who has 30 years of catalysis research under his belt. “In catalysis books, you see pictures of witches hunched over steaming cauldrons—that was what it was like in the early days.”
He says, for instance, you take a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen and expose it to nickel and you get methane. Substitute iron, and you get diesel oil. Include a copper chromate catalyst instead, and methanol comes out. Those different formulations of the catalyst determine what product you have—mostly discovered by trial and error.
In the past decade, catalysis research has been a benefactor of the nanotechnology revolution as Hayes and his colleagues have begun to nanoengineer new compounds. “Instead of putting everything into a bucket and stirring it, we’re actually engineering specific structures, although there is a lot of trial and error involved.”
He adds of his molecule-by-molecule designs, “The trick is to find the right ingredients and then make sure the resulting catalyst remains in an engineered form at high temperatures and high pressure.”
From there, the individual goals of Hayes’ research team are vast. For one such goal, Hayes was named as one of six University of Alberta recipients of a three-year Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grant. This particular mission: to partner with industry and research collaborators to develop a more efficient catalytic converter to oxidize the small amounts of methane left over from the incomplete combustion of natural gas engines. Compounding the challenge is the wet, low-temperature environment, which is needed to control other emissions.
“Making automobiles run on natural gas is a fad that has come and gone, but there is a huge interest in it again because methane releases the fewest amounts of greenhouse gases and it’s also incredibly cheap at the moment,” says Hayes.
And while natural gas engines are nothing new, Hayes says government regulations are now in place outlining how much methane, which has a greenhouse gas effect 23 times that of CO2, comes out of a tailpipe. “This is an intensely challenging mission because none of the natural gas engine makers have a catalyst that is good enough to help,” said Hayes. “It is a huge prize if you can achieve it.”
Sharing in the prize would be a large team of collaborators from across Canada who bring their own specialties to the project. “These things are so complicated and there is so much involved that there is no one person who is going to have expertise in all the areas required.”
Hayes’ $564,700 award was one of four grants headed to the Faculty of Engineering.
Fellow chemical and materials engineering professor Dongyang Li received $808,100 for his work developing an electron work function-based microstructure diagnosis technique for developing advanced structural materials.
Hongbo Zeng, also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, received $423,000 for his work understanding molecular interactions and interfacial behaviours of asphaltenes towards development of an integrated bitumen recovery and upgrading process.
Karthik Shankar, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received $423,000 over three years to research nanostructured ceramic coatings engineered for reduction of corrosion, erosion, fouling and viscous drag in industrial pipes and tubes.
Nadir Erbilgin, a professor in the Department of Renewable Resources within the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, received $483,511 to see whether the functional traits of soil fungi can improve lodgepole pine regeneration as successive disturbances such as wildfires, mountain pine beetle outbreaks and plant invasions undermine the ability of forests to regenerate.
Finally, Xing-Fang Li, a researcher in Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, was awarded $453,500 for her project to identify new water disinfection byproducts of health importance.