Bright idea

Catalysis breakthrough makes chemical production green

Published: Tuesday 30 April 2013

A HIGH-INTENSITY light can make copper oxide, formed during rusting of copper, shake-off the oxygen attached to it and turn to copper. While the finding might not help reverse the rusting on your car, it has huge implications for the production of propylene oxide, an industrially important chemical used in making plastics, toiletries, antifreeze and paints.

Scientists have been working hard to find a catalyst that can coax propylene and oxygen to form propylene oxide without involving a complex chain of reactions that generate unwanted chemicals. Metallic copper had show promise but its tendency to react with oxygen and form copper oxide, which slows down the reaction, was a big hurdle.

To find a way around this problem, researchers used copper nanoparticles dusted with clear silica as a catalyst for the reaction. The results were encouraging, but still only 20 per cent of the gas converted into propylene oxide. However, when the researchers exposed the reaction to high-intensity light, they were able to convert 50 per cent of the gas into propylene oxide.

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