Perseverance brings breakthrough in catalytic converters (Day 132)

A team of chemical engineering researchers have discovered a breakthrough in catalytic converter research through perseverance. This research will help manufactures of cars reduce the need for the use of expensive platinum in catalytic converters.

Eric Peterson, Andrew DeLaRiva and Abhaya Datye in the lab Photo credit | University of New Mexico

Eric Peterson, Andrew DeLaRiva and Abhaya Datye in the lab
Photo credit | University of New Mexico

Eric Peterson, a graduate student in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering at the University of New Mexico, began this discovery when he refused to accept that the measurements he recorded using x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) were incorrect.

In order to find a solution, Eric collaborated with a wide group of researchers from the University of New Mexico, US, Fuzhou University, China, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, US, New Mexico State University, US, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US and Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Korea, to help explain and resolve what was happening.

Professor of chemical and biological engineering, Abhaya Datye, worked with Eric on this project to improve our ability to measure the sizes of nanoparticles, focusing on those smaller than one nanometre (one billionth of a metre).

Catalytic converters use platinum is as it efficiently removes pollutants in car exhaust. As platinum is rare manufacturers are seeking ways to minimise its use in catalytic converters.

Car engine and catalytic converter

Car engine and catalytic converter

Abhaya said: “Most of the pollutants from a modern automobile are emitted during the first 30 seconds of starting a car, when the catalyst is still being warmed.

“At low temperatures, carbon monoxide builds up on the catalyst, decreasing its efficiency. This research shows a way to make the catalyst more effective at lower temperatures by enhancing its reactivity.”

However, this research did not start out well. Eric repeatedly tried to make the measurements using XAS, but the measurements did not offer the expected results. Abhaya said: “I told him he was probably just doing the measurements wrong.”

Luckily perseverance paid off and Eric, along with Abhaya and Andrew DeLaRiva (another graduate student), revisited those ‘incorrect’ measurements. Eric thought that there may be a single atom of palladium that was influencing the result. Andrew helped confirm the hypothesis using images obtained at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Space filling model for the La and Pd on the g-alumina (100) surface. Atoms are: oxygen/red, aluminum/gray, palladium/dark blue, and lanthanum/light blue. The La atoms sit in the four fold hollows on the alumina surface and help to trap the Pd atoms nearby. Photo credit | University of New Mexico

Space filling model for the La and Pd on the g-alumina (100) surface. Atoms are: oxygen/red, aluminum/gray, palladium/dark blue, and lanthanum/light blue. The La atoms sit in the four fold hollows on the alumina surface and help to trap the Pd atoms nearby.
Picture credit | University of New Mexico

The research indicates how single atoms of palladium, which is a member of platinum group metals, can be stabilised and isolated. Single isolated transition metal atoms provide the ultimate in atom efficiency, thus reducing the demand for costly precious metals such as platinum or palladium.

After extensive collaboration and Eric’s perseverance this research has been published in Nature Communications. The team is now pursuing future ideas of catalysis at an atomic level and hopes to work with industry partners.

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