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Alchemical Renewable Gas

Renewable Gas : Heterogeneous Catalysis

I had a most interesting afternoon, today, Tuesday 4th June 2013 at the Institute of Physics (IoP), attending a meeting organised by the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

Entitled “Catalysis and Chemical Engineering“, it was a series of research briefings from a wide range of academic and corporate scientists, outlining the contributions that chemical reaction catalysts make to industry and the energy sector.

Catalysts are what I call “Nature’s little helpers”, substances that aid and abet chemical reactions, without being used up themselves completely in the process. The perfect catalyst is one that doesn’t degrade over time, either by taking part in chemical reactions, or getting damaged or changed by assisting chemical reactions.

The perfect catalyst is also something that can be easily mixed with the substances used for the chemical reaction (the reactants or reagents), and also easily separated from the substances that are produced by the chemical reaction (the products).

Matter is found in four main phases, or states : solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Catalysts that are a different phase from the substances used in the chemical reaction are usually easier to separate. This is called heterogeneous catalysis, for example, where the reactants/reagents are gases or liquids, and the catalyst is a solid.

What has this got to do with Renewable Gas ? Well, several examples from the research presentations today make this point. There were several posters on the boards, outlining pieces of research. One of these caught my eye – on the photocatalysis of water, basically using sunlight and a catalyst to produce energy gas fuels from water. When tiny amounts of silver was added to the catalyst, the experimental reactor was producing more carbon monoxide gas than other gases, and without silver doping, it was producing more hydrogen gas than other gases. I asked K. Li of the University College London (UCL) Chemical Engineering group if he could send me a copy of the paper when it gets published. (Note: my apologies for not noting the spelling of his first name.)

Producing Renewable Hydrogen in industrial volumes is a very important part of the Renewable Gas story. The hydrogen is a valuable gas fuel in its own right, and it will also assist in carbon-rich gas recycling, and improving the energy density of mixed gas fuel feedstocks used in combustion for electricity generation, such as those gas resources with low levels of methane. Renewable Hydrogen production is also going to be very valuable for Renewable Refinery – making transport vehicle fuel oils (“Renewable Diesel”) and hydrocarbons (“Renewable Gasoline”) and other substances that are now made from petrochemicals, which could therefore be scarce in future.

A presentation by Adam Lee, soon to be of the University of Warwick, but still technically with the University of Cardiff was another green energy insight. He spoke about “Green Chemistry“, refining a wide range of industrial and energy chemicals using biomass as the feedstock.

I spoke with Panagiota Pimenidou at the University of Ulster about the simplicity and thermally balanced operation of chemical looping reformation of biomass – basically a neat trick to produce useful gas fuels from bioenergy feedstocks without using high temperature gasification.

During one of the tea breaks, an industry professional, who shall remain nameless, theorised that BP, Shell and ExxonMobil have probably already worked out how to run a Renewable Gas economy, but are keeping it all under their hats until we stop believing in the exploitation of fossil fuels, especially since fossil fuels these days are deeper and dirtier than ever.

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