South Korean scientists said Friday that they have developed a highly efficient nanoporous industrial catalyst that can have a considerable impact on chemical and oil-refining sectors.
The team of scientists led by Ryoo Ryong, a chemistry professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), said the solid zeolite compound developed in the laboratory has a reaction speed five to 10 times faster than that of conventional materials.
Zeolite, which is made from silica and aluminium, is frequently used as an absorbent, water purifier and in nuclear reprocessing, although it is mainly employed in the chemical industry.
The annual size of the zeolite market is estimated at US$2.5 billion with output using the material topping $30 billion. At present, 41 percent of all catalysts used in the chemical sector are nano-scale zeolite materials.
The KAIST team said that because the new zeolite is made up of different sized pores, the material can be used as a catalyst when existing materials are unable to act as a changing agent.
"Existing zeolites only have pores under 1 nanometer in diameter, but the new material has holes that range from 1 nanometer to 3.5 nanometers, which are all arranged in a regular honeycomb arrangement," Ryoo said. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
He said the ability to have both micro- and meso-sized pores is key to the faster reaction speed that is an integral part of raising efficiency. The South Korean researchers used a so-called surfactant process to make the different sizes of pores.
The development is a breakthrough because researchers and companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. have been trying to build zeolite with different sizes of pores for the past two decades without making serious headway. There are more than 200 different types of zeolites in the world.
Ryoo, who received funding from the government, has requested intellectual property rights for the discovery, which has been published in the latest issue of Science magazine. He also developed another zeolite in the past that can transform methanol to gasoline up to 10 times more efficiently than existing catalysts.
Exxon Mobil has expressed interest in the two zeolites made by Ryoo's team. Undisclosed South Korean petrochemical companies have also made inquiries that may lead to commercial development in the future.
"There are some technical issues to resolve, mainly related with mass production and stability," the scientist said.
He said full-fledge production will be determined by how much companies are willing to spend on research to speed up development that can bring down overall production costs.
The KAIST team said it took two years to make the new zeolite, which can be custom made to meet specific needs. (Yonhap News)