One of the objectives is to develop catalysts for reactions that use CO2 as the raw material; the RCGI helped with the cost of the new facilities

On July 12, in the city of São Paulo, the Laboratory for Research and Innovation in Catalytic Processes (LaPCat), of the Department of Chemical Engineering of the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (PQI-POLI-USP) will be inaugurated. The event will take place from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, beginning with a presentation prepared by Professors Martin Schmal, Rita Maria de Brito Alves, and Cláudio Augusto Oller do Nascimento, of USP’s Polytechnic School, in the Priscila Aya Shimizu Amphitheater, in Block 19 of the PQI-POLI/USP, Chemistry Area, Butantan Campus. Following the opening event, a guided visit will be made to the laboratory and, after the tour, a cocktail will be offered for the guests.

The facilities are located in Block B, on the ground floor of the Semi Industrial building, which is an annex of the Chemistry Area, in a 400 m² space that also houses the Polymer Laboratory, coordinated by Professor Reinaldo Giudici. “The area was remodeled, where we formed a joint space for the two research groups: polymers and catalytic processes. The area held in common has spaces for preparation, calcination, and physical, thermal, and chemical characterization, in-situ, and others. Each of the research groups has its own exclusive spaces for performing is specific activities. We also have an area for the future installation of pilot facilities, because, at a later date, the processes that are the object of our experiments in the lab work can be tested on a larger scale,” explained Rita Maria de Brito Alves.

Rita, who is the deputy Coordinator of the Physical-Chemical Program and the Coordinator of projects for the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), explains that the new laboratory will develop catalysts for several reactions and processes, such as the tri-reforming of methane for producing synthetic gas (syngas) for use as the raw material for fuels and chemical products, the Fischer-Tropsch reaction for producing fuels, for the production of fuels, light hydrocarbons and olefins, the so-called Water Gas Shift reaction for producing hydrogen and the hydrogenation reaction of CO2 for producing DME (Dimethyl Ether), which can be used as a fuel.

Professor Martin Schmal, who is a consultant of the laboratory and a specialist in catalysis, is also a Collaborating Professor of Poli/USP (and Emeritus of COPPE/UFRJ). He emphasizes that the most important thing is the study of new materials for the development of catalysts. “This is our difference. I have been working in the catalysis area for 40 years, and I always attempted to research different types of materials: graphene, carbon nanotubes, and mixed oxides. This use of these materials for preparing catalysts is quite recent worldwide. The Chinese and Europeans (especially Italians and Germans) are highly advanced in this area of study.”

According to him, these catalytic technologies are still not being used industrially. “The studies are advanced, but that does not mean that the catalysts based on these new materials are already be applied industrially, at the present time. However, we believe they have a future.”

CO2 Abatement – Both the tri-reforming of methane and the production of DME use CO2 as a raw material and, for that reason, they can be considered Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) initiatives. CCU has been indicated as one of the promising means for reducing the CO2 emitted by anthropogenic processes, worldwide.

According to Rita, the CO2 used as a raw material  by the reactions under study could come from a variety of sources, such as: Pre-salt, which has natural gas that is rich in CO2; from a thermal-electric plant; from fermentation processes, or from biogas.

“Most of the research groups that work with the subject of CO2 Abatement, worldwide, are investigated processes for transforming it into products with a high aggregate value. Thus, the CO2 is no longer waste and becomes a useful raw material. I think that CCU and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complementary. Therefore, it is more appropriate to refer to them as Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage (CCUS),” she said.

Schmal remembers that biomass can provide numerous products via different processes, and that the development of catalysts for reactions that are intrinsic to those processes is a necessity. “For example, many people are studying sugarcane bagasse; many others are studying how to obtain high aggregate value products from pyrolysis of biomass. But it is necessary to run the resulting products through treatment and purification processes. And, to that end, specific catalysts are often needed.”

Tests and processes – The team using the laboratory, 20 people in the experimental part alone, is already in the test phase for checking whether the catalysts being developed are ideal for the reactions that they want to improve. Rita says that the best results with the catalysts synthesized by the group, so far, were obtained for the process of tri-reforming methane.

“When the catalysts present good results, we continue testing them: different pressures, different temperatures…. The purpose for this is to gather experimental data and model the kinetics of the reaction. With the kinetic data in hand, it is possible, via modeling and simulation processes, to design the reactor, because the kinetics of the reaction define the design. Going forward from there, one can design the overall process, defining the mass and energy balances, the best operating conditions, the processes for separating the products of the reaction, and the purification of the desired composites…,” the engineer from Poli/USP explained.

According to her, many of the studies carried out in the new laboratory will be starting from scratch. “We want to deliver technically, economically, and environmentally viable processes whose emissions are lower than their consumption. It is important to have an environmentally sustainable process. Therefore, after creating the catalyst testing its catalytic activity, developing the kinetic model, designing the process, etc., we also evaluate the process from the standpoint of energy consumption and environmental impacts. Finally, we compare this with the conventional routes for delivering the same product, because the new processes must show themselves to be viable, in light of those that already exist.”

Most of the funding for renovating the Laboratory for Research and Innovation in Catalytic Processes came from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). Shell, via the RCGI, also helped with the cost of part of the facilities, which received money, as well, from other projects being developed by the team that coordinates the use of the space.

Partnerships – Professor Schmal points out that the laboratory is a modern cutting-edge facility with highly sophisticated precise and sensitive equipment. It is a multi-use laboratory, open to research by USP and other universities, but also to partnership with private enterprise through research projects.

“We are prepared to perform advanced studies in terms of development, but also to perform studies applied to industry. A few weeks ago, we were sought out by a chemical company in São Paulo, to carry out a Project. We are now lining up the terms of that partnership,” he said.