The chemical industry influences all our lives daily, everything from the components in the screen you are reading this article on to the fertilizer used to grow the food we eat.
To do this, this industry relies heavily on catalysis to reduce energy requirements or improve reaction efficiency, which, in turn, has a huge influence on the environment as well as the final cost to consumers. For instance, fertilizer (ammonia) production currently consumes about 1% of our global energy consumption — without catalysis, this number would be astronomical and worldwide food production would be greatly limited. Researchers are constantly trying to develop more efficient catalysts that will further decrease the energy demand, which would drive down the costs of fertilizers and, in turn, the cost of food to the consumer.
This focus on researching new catalysts is why most of us have read about new technologies that promise to improve our daily lives ― only to never see them on the market. This is usually because researchers have very little information about the market forces that govern which new technologies are implemented in the chemical industry and which are not — so it cannot factor this into the planning of research. Cost of materials is one of these market forces that has recently been investigated. Since materials cost scales with production, it is particularly important for the thousands to millions of tons per year (millions to billions of lbs) of products in the chemical industry.
Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark and industry partner Haldor Topsøe discovered that industrial catalytic processes could be divided into three groups by estimating the amount of catalyst consumed relative to the global production of the raw material.
Group I includes processes that utilize less than 0.01% of the available elements in their respective catalysts; this group was deemed highly viable and includes the catalysts used in ammonia and polymer production. Group II uses between 0.01-10 % of the available elements and are described as viable but could benefit from using more available materials. Group III processes consumed material of more than 10 % of the global element production. This group includes the catalytic converter in modern automobiles, which uses highly expensive and scarce noble metals like platinum and palladium to reduce harmful emissions. The authors concluded that it was only due to the enforcement of environmental laws that Group III processes could utilize such a large fraction of the global element production.
When the researchers calculated the cost for industries to purchase these catalysts relative to the estimated revenue from selling the products, they found that the same three groups resulted. This shows that both cost and availability must be taken into account when evaluating the viability of a catalyst. With this relationship in mind, the researchers were able to use examples of promising catalysts from the scientific literature to illustrate how one would estimate the maximal amount of the product that could be produced before catalyst availability became a potential concern.
The researchers also showed how to calculate the minimal price of the products needed given a certain scale of production (tons/year). Together, these tools allow researchers to gain an improved picture of the viability of their proposed catalysts and suggest which elements should not be considered due to the lack of raw material.
Based on the data, the team of researchers showed that to evaluate the feasibility of new catalysts to impact the chemical industry and, eventually, consumers, one has to consider many variables, but relatively simple correlations exist to guide the R&D process. This work gives the first insights into quantifying how scarce a catalyst has to be to be too rare for an application and gives the rest of us an appreciation that not all elements are equally available. It also gives researchers across the globe a tool to guide their research towards elements with a sufficient availability to positively impact our societies.
This study is described in the article titled: “Availability of the elements for heterogeneous catalysis – predicting the industrial viability of novel R&D catalysts”, recently published in the Chinese Journal of Catalysis. The work was conducted at the Department of Physics at the Technical University of Denmark by Anders. B Laursen, Ib Chorkendorff, and Peter C. K. Vesborg and at the Danish catalysis company Haldor Topsøe A/S by Jens Sehested.