Primary Catalyst Screening

Accelerating catalyst development to advance biorefining process technology
By Jeff Yoder | March 18, 2011

The refining industry is currently being challenged along a number of fronts.  Both the supply and quality of petroleum resources are being reduced with the feedstocks that are more readily available today being substantially heavier and more sour than desired. Rising public awareness of environmental issues is also forcing the industry to investigate the use of renewable resources to produce energy as well as transportation fuels. 

Catalysis is the most important technology used to convert raw feedstocks (either petroleum or naturally derived) into usable materials such as liquid fuels and chemicals. As refiners transition from standard feedstocks to more challenging ones such as heavy, sour petroleum fractions or biologically derived materials, new catalysts will be required. The sheer number of variables that need to be optimized to discover, develop, and commercialize these new catalysts will challenge researchers limited to using traditional R&D methods.

High-throughput primary screening techniques can dramatically increase the number of experiments that one researcher can perform in a given amount of time. Higher experimental capacity means that many more variables can be tested including more compositional and catalyst preparation variations as well as process variables such as reaction temperature, pressure, and residence time. This frees the researcher to think more creatively and not limit the experimental window to narrow variations based on assumptions from previous results. This type of approach is necessary to discover catalysts for truly new transformations such as those required to convert biomass-derived feedstocks into fuels and chemicals with existing markets. 

The primary screening approach requires an acceleration of all steps of the research process including catalyst synthesis, reaction screening, and analytical measurements. Fortunately, high-throughput research tools are available for all of these aspects. 

Catalyst Synthesis The first bottleneck that must be overcome is the speed with which catalysts can be prepared. A number of new technologies for high-throughput synthesis of heterogeneous catalysts have reached the market. These allow for the automated preparation of materials via incipient wetness impregnation, pH controlled coprecipitation, and hydrothermal synthesis allowing for facile exploration of a wide compositional as well as process space. Freeslate offers these workflows on a configurable automation platform known as The Core Module enabling researchers to customize a synthesis workflow to meet their specific needs while basing the workflow on proven capabilities. 

Reaction Screening The key to driving innovation and discovery is the ability to screen catalysts with an accelerated throughput matched to that of high-throughput catalyst synthesis. Researchers can then make and test hundreds of catalysts per week, limiting simplifying assumptions and making well-informed decisions from trends based on multiple data points instead of extrapolating conclusions from isolated experiments. Although technologies have been introduced that allow for modest improvements in the number of catalysts that can be screened, only recently has a reactor reached the market that allows for orders-of-magnitude increases in catalyst screening throughput. Freeslate developed the Screening Pressure Reactor as a true primary screening reactor, dramatically increasing the number of reactions that can be performed in a day. The SPR is a parallel reactor for rapid catalyst and process optimization under a wide process window reaching to 400 degrees Celsius and 3,000 psig. The SPR software provides automated pressure, temperature, and stir rate control capabilities with easy programming of desired conditions and monitors these parameters over time, with the profiles stored in a database for easy reference of actual hardware performance.

Characterization In order to accelerate decision-making from a high-throughput, workflow analytical throughput must also be matched to that of the synthesis and screening steps. Freeslate offers the powerful LEA software suite to meet this need. This software package provides the ability to integrate third-party analytics for the characterization of materials and the analysis of experimental reaction results. All data is located in a single, searchable database allowing for the correlation of information from an experimental run to the catalyst composition, reaction temperature, pressure, or any other experimental parameter. This necessary final step is the key to allow more informed research decision-making and more rapid catalyst development.

If approached in a thoughtful way, primary screening approaches to catalyst discovery and optimization can result in the rapid discovery and optimization of new catalysts for novel processes such as those required for biorefining and petroleum refining. A number of new technologies can enable scientists to remove existing research bottlenecks and accelerate the timeline to commercialization.

Author: Jeff Yoder
Senior Manager-Technical Marketing, Freeslate