This sponge-like creation is a new type of ultra-efficient catalyst for changing molecules into raw materials, i.e. materials intended for further processing. According to its authors, it is one of a kind, as it allows a number of different chemical reactions to be carried out within one material, with a high degree of control over the results. 'Previously manufactured catalysts can perform multiple reactions simultaneously, but we have seen many times that this approach has little chemical control, making it inefficient and difficult to predict. Our bio approach leans towards nature's catalysts - enzymes - to develop a powerful and precise way to perform many reactions in a specific order. It's like having a production line for nano-scale chemical reactions - all in one miniature and super-efficient catalyst molecule, explains Professor Karen Wilson, co-author of the study.
The sponge-like catalyst is actually small, because we are talking about the micron scale, and it's also porous - when the molecules go into the sponge, they undergo a chemical reaction in large pores, and then end up in the smaller pores, where another chemical reaction takes place. This process is not only cheap, but also allows the use of poor quality ingredients that would otherwise end up in the trash, such as used cooking oil. Although it is already used as biodiesel, it must first undergo an energy-consuming purification process, and what's more, it can only be treated with oils containing no more than 1-2% of impurities, while the new method can handle up to 50%.
The researchers point out that in its current form, the catalyst can turn these low-quality ingredients into low-carbon biodiesel, using a literally large container, with little heating and mixing. Equally important, the researchers assure that, after further work, their technology can be adapted to the production of fuel for turbine engines from agricultural waste, rubber tires or algae. In addition, the efficiency of the technology can double the productivity of the processes currently used to create precursors for a wide range of products, such as drugs and packaging from food waste, tires and microplastics, and work is currently underway to scale-up and commercialization.