April 07, 2015
Scientists from Stanford University and the Technical University of Denmark have discovered a nickel-gallium (Ni5Ga3) catalyst that synthesises methanol using hydrogen produced by wind or solar power and CO2 emissions from power plants.1
“Methanol is processed in huge factories at very high pressures using hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from natural gas,” said study lead author Felix Studt of SLAC. “We are looking for materials than can make methanol from clean sources under low-pressure conditions, while generating low amounts of carbon monoxide.”
“We spent a lot of time studying methanol synthesis and the industrial process,” says Studt. “It took us about three years to figure out how the process works and to identify the active sites on the copper-zinc-aluminium catalyst that synthesise methanol.”
Once he and his colleagues understood methanol synthesis at the molecular level, they began the hunt for a new catalyst capable of synthesising methanol at low pressures. Rather than testing for compounds in the laboratory, they searched in a massive computer database2 (a technique known as computational materials design). The most promising candidate turned out to be a little-known compound called nickel-gallium.
The Danish team carried out the task of synthesising nickel and gallium into a solid catalyst. This confirmed that the database had pointed them in the right direction. At high temperatures, nickel-gallium produced more methanol than the conventional copper-zinc-aluminium catalyst and considerably less of the carbon monoxide by-product.
More work is needed to achieve the goal of a truly carbon neutral process without unwanted by-products but again it is nickel that is supporting both innovation and a better environment.