Catalysis Research

Breakthrough in Refinery Catalysis at the Atomic Level

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Improved Oil Refinery Catalysis

Gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels contain small amounts of sulfur and nitrogen which are emitted to the atmosphere during fuel combustion. These elements are harmful to the human health and the environment. Catalytic processes are therefore implemented in oil refineries to reduce the S and N emissions. However, more efficient catalysts are urgently needed to keep up with the increasing oil consumption, dirtier oil wells as well as tighter and more stringent environmental legislation.

“To design such boosted catalysts, we need a detailed picture of how the catalyst looks and functions at the atomic level,” Stig Helveg says.

Today the catalyst consists of small crystallites of the mineral molybdenum disulfide (MoS2); the crystallites are just a few nanometers wide – that is a millionth of a millimeter in diameter. Moreover cobalt (Co) atoms are attached the crystallites to boost the catalysis.

Since the 1970’es, the structure of the catalyst has been debated intensively in the scientific world. In the 1980’s, researchers at Topsoe suggested the so-called Co-Mo-S model which at that time was fundamentally different from established beliefs and thus created much debate. Although the model is widely accepted today, no one has ever seen, atom-by-atom, the Co-Mo-S catalyst of the type used in oil refineries.