The Magic of Catalysis
The State Prize of the Russian Federation is indeed the highest Russian award a scientist can be honored. I take this award as the success and merit of the work of all my colleagues at the Institute and, of course, of my predecessors. Unlike the Lenin Prize, which was given for a specific work, the State Prize is an integral award for the whole amount of the work on new fuel types, new methods for energy transformation performed at the Institute of Catalysis of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences (IC SB RAS) since the late 1970s. This brings a shade of discontent: the Prize is awarded to a person while there are 1,300 people working at the Institute
In Russia, scientists have always thought they are a kind of state people. We are challenged to look forward because an idea, even the most promising, may take decades to put into practice. The initial point here is the scientific investigation of the idea consistence (the so-called oriented fundamental or screening research), and the final is the demonstration testing. Academic institutions are not committed directly to commercialize their products.
The Institute of Catalysis is unique in this respect against any other academic institution in the country. The object we have can be brought to its real industrial application. Catalysts are indeed a magic wand for chemists to convert one substance to another. However, while making the magic wand, we need to create conditions for it to work. At this point, we enter the interface between science and industry, which is now called chemical engineering, where the scientist starts thinking as an engineer and not only as a researcher.
We are simultaneously involved in the study of catalytic processes and developing new catalysts, i. e. fundamental and applied studies. These directions were clearly set from the very beginning by Academician G. K. Boreskov, the first director of the Institute.
Unfortunately, even in the Siberian Branch many people do not understand our role, calling us “applied scientists.” In fact, the objective criterion of the level of our fundamental research is that during the last four years the citation index of the Institute of Catalysis is higher of that of any other chemical institute in Russia. At the same time, we are engaged in numerous applied R&D, some of which cannot be unveiled. In addition, our Institute affiliates three pilot plants in Omsk and Volgograd.
HYDROGEN PLANTSFuel processors for hydrogen production based on microreactors are among the most promising R&D areas in power engineering. These compact devices contain many microchannels with a catalyst attached to their walls. To start the production of such devices, a number of problems must be solved. Highly active catalysts, stable at high temperatures and capable of prolonged operation without loss of activity, should be synthesized. Methods for reliable attachment of the catalyst to the channel walls have to be developed. Also, it is necessary to perfect the method for producing thousands, or even millions, of similar channels with the same amount of catalyst in order to improve the productivity and selectivity of the device
For me everything began 33 years ago when my supervisor K. I. Zamaraev and I, his recent post-graduate student, came to Novosibirsk from Moscow. It was in the early 1970s, when an oil crisis happened; oil crises always stimulate interest in new sources of energy. At that time Academician N. N. Semenov, who is the only Russian Nobel Prize Winner in chemistry, inspired us with an almost unreal idea: to carry out “artificial” photosynthesis, i. e. convert the solar energy directly into fuel. That was the “charge” placed into us – new sources of energy, non-traditional pathways…
So, in 1977 we began working on renewable sources of energy, which were perceived very skeptically by many scientists at that time. The word “photocatalysis” was not considered to be a serious term. Today, about one-third of all publications on catalysis are devoted to this topic. Furthermore, currently four Russian companies produce special devices for indoor air purification based on this principle. So, I see the future of our institute in the scientific review of ideas, even the most unexpected, which are related to applying catalytic methods to energy technology and deep processing of organic resources.
Why is it important? This “magic wand” gives 15 % of Russia’s gross national product. For comparison, in the USA its contribution reaches 35 %. Our lagging behind is due to insufficient development of the automobile industry and oil processing industry. There are many branches of industry related to processing raw materials where there is no “chemistry.” These are the areas where we can grow – our “magical wand” is of strategic importance.
Before perestroika, our Institute practically acted as a ministry in this area. We managed to increase the proportion of domestic catalysts used in the industry to 97—98 %. Now this proportion has reduced almost by half. Often, this is a consequence of the government’s policy, although we do everything we can to change the situation.
Here is a recent example. It took us just half a year to develop, practically from scratch, an industrial catalyst for producing diesel fuel that met the Euro-4 and Euro-5 standards. To tell the truth, we ourselves were surprised that the problem was solved so quickly. The algorithm was very simple: five teams started working on this problem; two teams made it to the final. As a result, one catalyst result went into production. These are excellent results. The risk factor in science is very high: at the level of screening studies 1:10 ratio is considered to be good.
FUEL ALTERNATIVEFuel cells as power sources of small and medium capacity can become good substitutes for usual batteries in the future. Hydrogen and direct methanol fuel cells capable of operating at room temperature should be specially mentioned. Their wide application is prevented by the high cost of produced energy, which is largely due to the high concentration of noble metals in the catalytic layers of the membrane-electrode units and their inefficient utilization.
One of the most important imp¬rovements was the application of platinum catalysts attached to carbon supports with high specific surface areas. The experiments carried out by the researchers of IC SB RAS showed that optimization of the physicochemical properties of the support makes it possible to raise the efficiency of fuel cells considerably and, consequently, to increase the capacity per unit mass of the noble metal
It is commonly known that catalytic methods are widely used for processing hydrocarbons, in petrochemistry and in other branches of chemical industry. However, the reserves of oil and natural gas are exhaustible. Therefore our interests today also include renewable sources of energy and chemical raw materials, as well as new methods of energy production, e. g. photocatalysis.
I head a department called Non-traditional Technologies in Catalysis, and I myself am a “non-traditional” chemist. By education I am an engineer-physicist in the chemistry of fast processes. Even our most “non-traditional” area of studies is very fundamental. I am talking about the role of catalytic processes in the origin of life and even the solar system. Overall, there are about sixty subdivisions at the Institute, each of them simultaneously working on several problems.Technology for producing biodisel fuel from vegetable oil, using heterogeneous interesterification catalysts, is being developed in the frames of a joint project of IC SB RAS and NSU. This technology will decrease the cost of biodiesel while maintaining its quality at the level that meets the highest ecological requirements
I can speak about many things, for example, about systems for direct transformation of ionizing irradiation into fuel. We have already tested models of nuclear reactors using catalysts that produce fuels rather than vapor going onto a turbine. If desired, this fuel can be stored and used when necessary.
Another topic is hydrogen power engineering. Today hydrogen is considered to be a universal and ecologically clean chemical energy source. New power engineering requires compact hydrogen generators for fuel cells. We were practically the first in Russia to begin working in this promising field. Our compact microchannel fuel processor, which can continuously generate 150 liters of hydrogen-containing gas per hour, can compete with foreign analogs.
The main task of the laboratory working on the problems of biofuels is the production of energy sources from available vegetable raw materials. They include wood, agricultural wastes, even rice husk (hundreds of thousands tons of rice husk are available in Russia alone). Processing any type of biomass can be a problem because it is a solid substance. For a catalyst to work, it has “to touch” the substance at the molecular level. To achieve this, the biomass has to be converted either into a gas or into a liquid. At our institute we have developed the first installation transforming sawdust into a liquid resembling tar. To refine the obtained “bio-oil,” one has to remove oxygen from it and saturate it with hydrogen. Our researchers are now working on this problem.
An interesting new area of research for us is biodegradable polymers. Today we cannot imagine our life without polymer packing materials. However, standard plastics do not decompose in the natural environment for decades or even centuries. Environment-friendly plastics are not produced in Russia yet, and technologies for their production cannot be purchased abroad.
We are developing such polymers; the first syntheses were successful. One of the most promising biopolymers is produced from bacterial lactic acid. Here I would like to note that biotechnology works only at the first stage, especially in the case of large-scale production. Then, chemists have to do their job to obtain the final product. The goal of our institute is both to develop the technology and to initiate interest in this area of research.
I would like to mention that this work is carried out by a specially organized group of young scientists. Overall, there are many young researchers at the Institute of Catalysis: about one third of our workers are under 35 years old; besides, 150 undergraduates and graduate students work with us. The training of specialists is one of our main priorities. We work in close contact with Novosibirsk State University (NSU) and Novosibirsk State Technical University (NSTU): our researchers give lectures and head departments. As for me, I have been teaching thermodynamics at NSU for about 20 years, and have written 6 university textbooks.
I think that supporting young researchers is one of the main tasks of the administration and directorate. This includes selection of the most urgent and promising areas of research. Our young employees are confident of the future and know that it is in their hands.
I feel that I have fulfilled my main task, or a mission, in science. Twenty years ago, when many things in the country were being destroyed, the Institute survived. It has been rejuvenated and equipped with new facilities. The topic on which we began working in the late 1970s – development of new types of fuels and of new methods for energy transformation – has acquired great popularity worldwide, and our contribution is an undisputed fact.
We have managed to carry out one of the largest innovation projects in Russia and achieved a good result. The project’s implementation increased the GNP by nearly RUR 9 billion in three years, which means that we have financed the operation of our institute for several years to come.
The State Prize is a great honor that obliges us to work hard. We are ready for this. The only thing we need today is to be needed by our country.
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Parmon V. N. Natural selection among molecules // SCIENCE First Hand (Engl.). 2004, No. 0. P. 32—41.
Parmon V. Thermodynamics of Non-Equilibrium Processes for Chemists with a Particular Application to Catalysis // Elsevier, 2010.
Doctor of Technology A. S. Noskov,
Candidate of Chemistry V. A. Yakovlev and the advertising department of IC SB RAS
for assisting to prepare this article