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Chemical research sparks new industry

11 August 2017
Research highlights sustainability and potential new industries

A new catalyst designed by chemical engineering researchers offers sustainable solutions for hydrocarbon production and sparks the potential for economic expansion in Australia.

Shampoo, oil, candle wax, medicine, smart phones, gasoline – all these household items contain a key compound that fuel our everyday lives, hydrocarbon.

Hydrocarbon refers to a group of organic compounds consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon. Methane is one example, and is the main compound in natural gas. Olefins such as ethylene are also hydrocarbons, and are widely used in the production of plastics. Industrial sectors rely so heavily on these compounds that hydrocarbon is now a 1.5 trillion dollar industry.

There is, however, a lack of discourse on the production of these hydrocarbons and the detrimental impact these industrial processes have on the environment. To this end, Associate Professor Jun Huang and his team from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Sydney are working to help resolve this environmental issue through their expertise in the field of catalysis engineering.

Associate Professor Jun Huang

Associate Professor Jun Huang

In order to produce hydrocarbons, crude oil or bio-oil is exposed to high temperatures and broken down into simpler molecules. Hydrocarbon gases then rise into a distillery column, leaving behind petroleum coke, or ‘petcoke’. Petcoke is burned to recover reusable compounds, however, this harmful by-product actually emits 11% more greenhouse gases than coal [1].

“Almost a quarter of the feedstocks used in the refinement process become undesired by-products or wastes”, says Associate Professor Huang, who has a solution that could shift the hydrocarbon industry towards a more sustainable future.

“To speed up the refinement process, we currently use chemical ‘catalysts’ such as zeolites and silica-alumina, where we’ve designed new and unique catalysts based on penta-coordinated aluminium.

“These catalysts are high in acidity, which allows us to reduce the amount petcoke left behind in hydrocarbon production. As a result, our catalysts decrease carbon dioxide emissions from oil refinement by 28%,” says Associate Professor Huang.

The implications of this research are highly significant for the hydrocarbon industry and highlight the potential for a ‘catalyst industry’ in Australia.

“Denmark for example, has created an entire industry exporting ammonia to hydrocarbon manufacturers across the globe. Our catalysts, developed in Australia, provide a more cost-effective and sustainable solution that is in high demand,” says Associate Professor Huang.

The combustion of hydrocarbon fuels still emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating the need for alternative energy sources in the future. However, as researchers look to solar, wind and water for energy, hydrocarbon is still utilised in sustainable technologies, as well as everyday household items, such as plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Associate Professor Huang’s article on this research, ‘Brønsted acid sites based on penta-coordinated aluminum species’, was published in the Nature Communications journal late last year. He is now working on establishing patents for new catalysts and collaborating with two international and local companies to scale-up the processes with the ultimate aim to establish a competitive catalyst industry in Australia. His efforts were recently  commended with a Vice Chancellor Award, recognising his outstanding research in catalysis engineering.


[1] Managing China’s Petcoke Problem, Carnegie Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, viewed 10 July