New method can create more efficient catalysts for industrial processes

Researchers belonging to the Georgia State University have been studying catalytic reactions on a microscopic level, and their findings might lead to more efficient industrial processes. Catalysts play a significant role in the conversion of raw materials into valuable products in industries, like brewing, paper, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals, among others. The team devised an innovative imaging strategy to track individual molecules as they flow through tiny pores in the shells of silica spheres, which allows them to monitor the chemical reactions on catalytic centers at the core. This method has helped the researchers formulate the first quantitative measurements of the confinement on a nanoscale that can speed up catalytic reactions. This ‘nanoconfinement effect’ can support the development of highly efficient industrial catalysts that can conserve energy. The team’s method has been outlined in the journal Nature Communications.

Ning Fang, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, Georgia State University, says that we now have a theory based on experimental evidence that can be added to simulations to better predict the result of employing specific catalysts. The study of catalytic reactions was previously restricted to computational and theoretical models. The single-molecule imaging system, designed by Bin Dong, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Georgia State University, has enabled researchers to observe and measure the reactions that happen on a tiny multi-layered porous sphere that was created by collaborators at Iowa State University, headed by Professor Wenyu Huang and Yuchen Pei, a postdoctoral research associate.

The reactant molecules have to point themselves in a particular direction to pass through nanopores, openings that are almost 100 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. The nanopores’ diameter can be compared to the size of the reactant molecule. When the tip comes close to the active core, the first step of the reaction is initiated. The resulting intermediate product gets trapped by the nanopore as the reaction undergoes three more steps to create the final product molecule. This method will help the formulation of new catalysts with higher efficiency, which will also help conserve a lot of energy.

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