Australia’s opportunity to drive down carbon through clever catalysts

Australia has an opportunity to lead the world with a distributed catalyst-driven chemical processing industry that is sustainable and circular, experts say.

In an opinion piece published in the journal One Earth today, researchers from Australia, Singapore and the USA argue a focus on catalysts could improve the sustainability of chemical manufacturing processes.

Investing in research, development and incorporation of catalytic materials into industrial processes could, they say, help bend what is currently a linear creation-to-waste lifecycle into a circular process that reduces and reuses chemical products.

Catalysts reduce the energy required for a chemical process, without being consumed by the reaction.

“Reactant molecules – things we want to convert – will bind chemically to the catalyst, will undergo some transformation, [maybe] a bond will be made or broken, and a product will be released, in theory, an infinite number of times,” says Adam Lee, from Griffith University.

“Catalysts help make it easier for one molecule to transform into another. They can do these things very fast, typically at low temperatures… in catalysis, we mean below 100°C.”

Lee was a co-author of the research along with Griffith’s Centre for Catalysis and Clean Energy director Karen Wilson.

They point to several opportunities presented by catalyst innovation.

First, by lowering the energy for chemical reactions, less carbon will be released to fire these processes.

But investing in catalyst research will also lead to new reactions and products that better use feedstock resources.

Lee and Wilson explain catalysts as directing reactions that deliver custom chemical outcomes that would not be possible in their absence.

“If you took a sugar and heated it in a pan, you will make caramel and eventually you will make black carbon that will coat the base,” Wilson says.

“If you do that same thing with a catalyst, you will turn sugars into things that could be used for fuel additives, or polymer precursors. That’s where the catalyst is directing it to different molecules.”

Platinum ccby20
Platinum group metals are often used as catalysts. Credit: James St. John CC BY-SA 2.0

Opportunity to meet development goals

Sustainable production of transport fuels, chemicals and fertilisers is crucial for economies to meet net-zero targets and shared development goals.

Repurposing biowastes and plastics in circular, catalyst-mediated processes could present new opportunities for economies like Australia.

But that would take a major commitment from governments to scale up their investment in R&D and translational infrastructure.

“We’ve talked to a lot of the chemical companies around the world, many of whom are keen to move across to Australia if we can find a way to get value out of the organic matter that we have, that doesn’t have to keep up with [using] fossil fuels,” Lee says.

With so little investment in research, development and translational science when it comes to catalysts, it’s a big jump for economies like Australia to become a global player in a fledgling catalyst revolution.

On the other hand, Australia could find promise in small modular reactors. These ‘SMRs’ aren’t the nuclear fission reactors being debated in federal politics though, instead, they’re miniature (and non-nuclear) catalytic reactors that process feedstocks.

“The chemistry industry that we’re all used to has these huge plants that are very localised, everyone brings all their feedstock from many, many miles apart,” Wilson says.

“Australia, because it doesn’t have much of a chemical industry is actually in a unique position to try and adopt emerging technologies, which are based around more distributed reactor sites where you would have smaller potentially portable reactor processes that would be dedicated to a specific transition.”

Diagram catalyst
Credit: Abbas et al 2024

Small catalytic reactors – potentially the size of a microwave – could be, Lee says, placed next to an agricultural site or wastewater treatment plant with specific feedstocks being converted by a specialised catalyst into an outcome product.

“[Small reactors] are not going to produce enough fuel to power a tow, but it could be enough to produce enough fuel a day to power a tractor,” says Lee.

“If there’s any excess leftover, then that could perhaps be passed on to a nearby co-located small chemical company that would use that as a solvent for something.”

Wilson and Lee are working together with 7 of Australia’s “Group of 8” universities to establish a centre of excellence that would work to develop catalysed sustainable chemical manufacturing, which they say is a step needed to help developed economies reach their 2050 carbon targets.

But with new chemical innovations taking 15 years to be realised, the clock is ticking for economies to ride the potential wave.

“Timescales are short for starting this process,” Lee says, “Net zero 2050 is never going to happen if we neglect the dirtiest industry sector in the world.”

“As long as we’re buying chemical products that were produced in a dirty process, we’re not really addressing climate change at all. 2050 is not far [off], so any change has to happen in the next two to three years,” Lee says.

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