Ghent University researchers used computer simulations to discover a new material that efficiently converts methanol into building blocks for fuels and plastics. This conversion has the potential to replace traditional petrochemical processes based on crude oil. The strength of the methanol-to-olefins (MTO) process is that methanol can be produced from any carbon containing material opening the gate for the utilization of CO2 captured from the atmosphere. In that view, the MTO process can play a crucial role in reducing CO2 emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels.
The MTO conversion occurs in a zeolite catalyst, this is a solid material with pores on the nanoscale. A major drawback of current MTO catalysts is that they produce a lot of unwanted side products and even deactivate after a while. As such, the MTO process cannot compete with oil-based petrochemical processes that have been optimized for many years. Currently, the MTO process is already commercialized in China but its low efficiency hampers worldwide large-scale applications.
An international team of researchers now discovered an ingenious way to boost the performance of MTO catalysts, resulting in a material that yields two times more of the most valuable product and has a 9 times longer lifetime compared to commercial catalysts. To this end, the team adapted the architecture of the catalyst at the molecular level by incorporating additional building blocks in the pores of the material. This was enabled by computer simulations of the material to unravel its behavior at the molecular level. The simulations were performed at the Center for Molecular Modeling of Ghent University (http://molmod.ugent.be) under supervision of Prof. Veronique Van Speybroeck and Dr. Kristof De Wispelaere. The new material was synthesized and tested on a lab scale by a large team of researchers at Delft University of Technology, King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, Utrecht University, Eindhoven University of Technology, University of Oslo and ETH Zurich. The exceptionally exciting results provide design guidelines for a new generation of materials that will leverage the transition towards more sustainable chemical processes and will be published in Nature Chemistry (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41557-018-0081-0).
Dr. Kristof De Wispelaere
Center for Molecular Modeling, Ghent University