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Purdue engineers' discovery may improve 
natural gas combustion technology

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN (03/18/05) -- A discovery made by chemical engineers at Purdue University may help improve a promising low-polluting technology that combusts natural gas more cleanly than conventional methods.

The finding revolves around the fact that catalysts and other materials vital to industry have complex crystalline structures with numerous sides, or facets. Different facets sometimes provide higher performance than others, so industry tries to prepare catalytic materials that contain a large number of higher-performing facets.

The Purdue researchers have determined, however, that the precious metal palladium, the catalyst used in the clean energy technology - called catalytic combustion - performs the same no matter which facet is exposed.

"Palladium is the best metal for the catalytic combustion of methane, which is contained in natural gas," said Fabio Ribeiro, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Purdue. "There is no other element in the periodic table you can use that's better than palladium for this reaction."

To produce electricity, natural gas is burned in a turbine similar to a jet engine, and the turbine runs a generator. The conventional method, which is widely used in commercial power generation, burns natural gas with a flame. Researchers are trying to eliminate the flame, replacing it with a catalyst that combusts methane at lower temperature, emitting less smog-producing nitrogen oxide pollution. The catalytic combustion technology is promising as a future energy source because it generates less pollution without losing efficiency, but industry is still trying to find higher-performance catalysts to improve the process.

The research findings are detailed in a paper that was presented to a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego on March 15. The paper was written by Ribeiro; Jinyi Han, a researcher from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts; Purdue postdoctoral student Guanghui Zhu; and Dmitri Y. Zemlianov, a researcher from the University of Limerick in Ireland.

The research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and Ribeiro's lab is associated with the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue's Discovery Park, the university's hub for interdisciplinary research. The research is ongoing and is supported by Purdue's recently formed Center for Catalyst Design.

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