New Catalyst Leads to More Efficient Butadiene Production

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a new catalyst that improves the efficiency of converting butane, a component of natural gas, to butadiene, a building block of synthetic rubber and various plastics.

Creating butadiene from butane is tricky. Existing techniques for converting butane to butadiene either create a bunch of by-products that no one wants, or only convert a small fraction of butane to butadiene each time the butane passes through the chemical reactor. As a result, you have to run the butane through the same process over and over.

“It’s an expensive process in terms of energy and money,” says Fanxing Li, corresponding author of the book and Alcoa Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. “Because after each pass through the chemical reactor, you have to separate the butadiene and by-products from the butane – which consumes a lot of energy – and pass the butane through the reactor again.”

As a result, very few factories are dedicated to the production of butadiene. Instead, much of the butadiene used in manufacturing comes from plants where butadiene is collected as a byproduct of other reactions.

“It’s a problem, because the demand for butadiene far exceeds the available supply,” Li said. “We wanted to find a more efficient way to convert butane to butadiene, making butadiene production facilities more viable on the business plan – and this work is an important step in that direction.”

Specifically, the researchers designed a catalyst that converts more butane to butadiene with each pass through the reactor, compared to previous catalysts. The work was carried out using an oxidative dehydrogenation reaction.

“We were able to convert up to 42.5% of butane to butadiene in a single pass,” Li says. “The best performance we could find was around 30%. we see it as a proof of concept – we believe there is still a lot more we can do to improve the selectivity of this process.”

The catalyst itself is a shell of lithium bromide surrounding a core of lanthanum and strontium ferrite. The reaction requires a modular reactor and the conversion takes place between 450 and 500 degrees Celsius.

“We are open to partnerships to further explore the potential of this work,” Li said.

The article, “Alkali Metal Halide Coated Perovskite Redox Catalysts for Anaerobic Oxidative Dehydrogenation of not-butane”, will be published on July 27 in the open access journal Scientists progress. The first author of the paper is Yunfei Gao, a former Ph.D. student and postdoctoral fellow at NC State who is now a faculty member at East China University of Science and Technology. The article was co-authored by Xijun Wang, a former postdoc at NC State who is now at Northwestern University; Noel Corolla, former NC State undergraduate; Tim Eldred, associate researcher at NC State; Arnab Bosea, former Ph.D. student and postdoctoral fellow at NC State; and Wenpei Gao, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at NC State.

The work was carried out with support from the National Science Foundation, under grant number 2116724; the US Department of Energy’s RAPID Institute, under grant number DE-EE007888-05-6; and the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science at NC State.

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Material provided by North Carolina State University. Original written by Matt Shipman. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.