A carbon catalyst under study by the U.S. Department of Energy could replace precious or transitive metals used for splitting strong covalent bonds. The discovery could disrupt traditional practices for manufacturing fuels and fuel cells, and electrocatalysis techniques.

Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Researchers at the DOE Ames Laboratory utilized a nitrogen-assembly carbon (NAC), in which the placement of nitrogen atoms around the carbon greatly affects the catalysts reactivity. Nitrogen atoms in close proximity is thermodynamically unstable, but researchers determined that meta-stable nitrogen assemblies can be created in a lab. When added to chemical manufacturing processes, the NACs facilitate unexpected reactions, such as hydrogenolysis of aryl ethers, dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene and tetrahydroquinoline and hydrogenation of common unsaturated functionalities.

The scientists noted that NAC catalysts can be used for both gas and liquid processing at high temperatures and pressures. If the technology reaches full realization, the need for expensive and limited precious or transitive metals will be decreased and will have far reaching effects on the chemical manufacturing industry.

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