Chemical catalyst developed in Calgary could be a game-changer for the energy industry

Mark Lowey
June 5, 2024

A chemical catalyst developed at the University of Calgary offers a cheap, reliable way to convert carbon dioxide into renewable fuels, clean hydrogen and other valuable products.

The catalyst, nanocrystalline cubic molybdenum carbide, utilizes an inexpensive, abundant metal and common table sugar.

The catalyst has the potential to revolutionize the energy industry and other sectors, especially as they capture more CO2 to prevent the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere, says Pedro Pereira-Almao (photo at right), who led the research group at UCalgary’s Schulich School of Engineering that developed the catalyst.

“For anyone that wants to convert CO2 into any valuable product, this catalyst is exceptional for that,” he told Research Money.

“It is easy to industrialize and is bullet-proof, in the sense that we know it is very stable,” he said.

Pereira-Almao, professor emeritus at UCalgary, is now chief technology officer of NanosTech, a Calgary company spun out of the work done by his university research group. NanosTech aims to deploy the nanocrystalline cubic molybdenum carbide – along with other nanocatalysts developed by the group – in several industrial applications.

“We have the catalysis of the future to make the future possible,” by converting CO2 into hydrogen, synthetic gas and renewable fuels, Pereira-Almao said. “We only need to find the companies that want to use it.”

In an international study that involved laboratory tests conducted at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the nanocrystalline cubic molybdenum carbide catalyst converted CO2 to carbon monoxide over hundreds of hours, at high temperatures in a harsh environment. This is significant because carbon monoxide is an important building block used to produce a variety of useful chemicals.

The study was co-led by Milad Khoshooei, a former PhD student of Pereria-Almao who first worked on and tested the catalyst in Pereira-Almao’s UCalgary lab. Khoshooei is now a postdoctoral fellow with Northwestern University’s department of chemistry and International Institute for Nanotechnology.

The study is published in the journal Science. Pereira-Almao is a co-author, as is Gerado Vitale, who developed the production process for the catalyst while working with Pereira-Almao at UCalgary. Vitale is also now at NanosTech, as its chief of catalyst production.

“The publication of this research in Science validates our team’s dedication to what is possible with catalysis, and we have an opportunity to ensure Canada benefits from this innovation,” said Myles McGovern, CEO of Kelowna, B.C.-based clean tech firm Vorsana Environmental Inc.

In 2021, Vorsana Environmental acquired NanosTech with the goals of accelerating commercialization of Pereria-Almao’s nanocatalyst technology and also building a catalytic-based innovation hub in Calgary.

“Green chemistry ensures our path to cleaner energy,” McGovern said.

Khoshooei at Northwestern University said even if society stopped emitting CO2 now, Earth’s atmosphere would still have an excess of CO2 as a result of industrial activities from the past centuries.

“We need to reduce CO2 emissions and find new ways to decrease the CO2 concentration that is already in the atmosphere. We should take advantage of all possible solutions,” Khoosooei said.

The “secret sauce” in the new catalyst is molybdenum carbide, an extremely hard ceramic material. Unlike many other catalysts that require expensive metals, such as platinum or palladium, molybdenum is an inexpensive, non-precious, Earth-abundant metal. 

To transform molybdenum into molybdenum carbide, the scientists needed a source of carbon. They discovered a cheap option in an unexpected place: the pantry. Sugar – the white, granulated kind found in nearly every household – served as an inexpensive, convenient source of carbon atoms.

Calgary group holds the patents for producing and manufacturing the catalyst

In the tests done at Northwestern University, operating at ambient pressures and high temperatures (300 to 600 degrees Celsius), the catalyst converted CO2 into carbon monoxide with 100-per-cent selectivity. 

High selectivity means that the catalyst acted only on the CO2 without disrupting surrounding materials. In other words, industry could apply the catalyst to large volumes of captured gases and selectively target only the CO2. The catalyst also remained stable over time, meaning that it stayed active and did not degrade.

The catalyst’s properties enable potential users to control and tailor the designed composition of the final valuable product, the researchers said.

The senior author on the Science study is Omar K. Farha, professor in chemistry at Northwestern University, whose research group develops metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), a class of highly porous, nano-sized materials that could potentially be used to capture CO2.

MOFs and the nanocrystalline cubic molybdenum carbide catalyst could work together to play a role in carbon capture, sequestration and utilization, he said.

“At some point, we could employ a MOF to capture CO2, followed by a catalyst converting it into something more beneficial," Farha said. “A tandem system utilizing two distinct materials for two sequential steps could be the way forward.”

Pereira-Almao said his research group previously published scientific papers, in 2013 and 2015, on the active nanocrystalline cubic molybdenum carbide catalyst and its preparation, and also holds the patent for its production and manufacturing processes.

The tests on the catalyst done at Northwestern University helped enrich understanding in characterizing the catalyst, and were “a good contribution on the theoretical aspects of the material,” Pereira-Almao said.

Northwestern University’ s tests also showed how efficient the catalyst is in coverting CO2, he added.

However, “the genesis [of the catalyst] is entirely at the University of Calgary, both as a synthesis and as many applications,” Pereira-Almao noted. “It was at the University of Calgary, entirely within my research group, that it was produced.”

Pereira-Almao’s work at UCalgary on nanocatalysts was supported by a joint Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)-industry industrial chair.

The research for the new study in Science was jointly supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and NSERC.

Pereria-Almao said NanosTech already has the capacity to start producing the catalyst at industrial scale, in hundreds of tonnes, as soon as a company wants it.

NanosTech is actively pursuing potential customers and investors to do a pilot demonstration project with the catalyst, he said.

The overarching goal is to use Alberta and Canada’s natural resources to produce next-generation fuels that are cleaner and sustainable compared with existing fossil fuels, Pereira-Almao said. “We are going to help the whole world to make a more sustainable industrial activity.”

NanosTech has signed an agreement with one of Canada’s largest oilsands producers to field-validate NanosTech’s “in situ upgrading technology,” using the company’s nanocatalyst technology, at the producer’s oilsands production facility in northern Alberta.

The $33.6-million project received $5 million from Emissions Reduction Alberta and $500,000 from Alberta Innovates.

Pereria-Almao has also co-founded the Calgary companies Carbononva Corp., which is developing a catalyst-based technology to produce carbon nanofibres, and Litus, which is developing nanotechnology for lithium production.


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