Pedal to the metal

Enhancing industrial chemical production with the world’s first porous nanomaterial for analysing catalytic reactions

Many people would consider “catalysis” to be, at best, little more than a vague and distant memory; a topic not touched on since high school science classes. Yet, despite its infrequent use in dinner-party conversations, we all benefit from it daily.

Virtually every industrial chemical on the planet is produced using some form of metal-based catalytic reaction, and these chemicals are integral in a vast array of our products and processes. These include plastics, rubber, textiles and clothing, agriculture, paper production, petroleum refining and manufacturing.

So when researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Advanced Nanomaterials recently succeeded in creating a more efficient and accurate way to analyse these vital reactions, it was big news.

“Ultimately our work is going to facilitate the development of new, or more effective, catalysts that are tailored to deliver specific chemical products,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Chris Sumby. “It’s of fundamental importance to the scientific community.”

Fittingly, the research team’s breakthrough, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, builds on the Nobel Prize-winning work of University of Adelaide alumni Sir William and Sir Lawrence Bragg. In 1914 the remarkable father-and-son team pioneered the use of X-rays to determine crystal structure, providing valuable insight into the relationship between atomic structure and material function.

The Braggs’ technique – known as X-ray crystallography – relied on the sample being crystalline so as to provide an observable long-range atomic order. However, according to Associate Professor Sumby, his team has developed a new nanomaterial to house samples that eliminates the need for them to be crystallised.

“It’s a porous metal-organic framework [MOF] with a sponge-like structure,” said co-investigator, Associate Professor Cristian Doonan. “This enables us to simply ‘pour’ metal samples in, together with chemical reactants, and achieve the necessary long-range order immediately.

“We can then conduct the reaction and examine the structures of the products using X-rays without having to isolate them or grow crystals. We can potentially even capture ‘snapshots’ of the structures while the reactions are still happening, which certainly can’t be done normally with X-ray crystallography.

“We can’t wait to see the benefits of this technique filter through into the development of more energy efficient industrial processes.”

The ongoing MOF research is jointly supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund and the Australian Research Council.

Related Links:
Assoc. Prof. Chris Sumby
Assoc. Prof Christian Doonan
School of Physical Sciences
Centre for Advanced Nanomaterials

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