University of Wisconsin–Madison (UWM) researchers have discovered a new type of catalyst to drive the chemical reaction used to create propene, a key component of plastics found in consumer goods such as electronics, clothing and food packaging.

For years, the “steam cracking” process has been used to convert oil-derived naphtha into propene and other petrochemicals used in the manufacture of plastics. In the last decade, however, many U.S. refineries have instead moved toward shale gas cracking as domestic shale gas production has soared—resulting in a decrease in the supply of propene.

Propene, aka propylene, is a key component of plastics found in food packaging. Image credit: Pixabay.Propene, aka propylene, is a key component of plastics found in food packaging. Image credit: Pixabay. To help meet demand, the chemical industry has been working to produce the compound through a chemical process called “oxidative dehydrogenation of propane” (ODHP). Now, UWM researchers have reported success with hexagonal boron nitride and boron nitride nanotube catalysts driving the ODHP reaction.

According to the researchers, led by Joseph Grant, graduate student in chemistry, the new boron nitride catalysts produce a greater proportion of propene during the reaction than do traditional oxide catalysts. Whereas traditional catalysts spark reactions that form carbon dioxide and other undesirable byproducts in addition to propene, the new catalysts instead produce ethene—another industrially useful compound—as a byproduct. Additionally, they may be used continuously without an intermediate regeneration step required in alternative dehydrogenation processes, according to the researchers.

Chemical Engineering Professor Ive Hermans says the new family of catalysts opens up an unexpected and less resource-intensive approach to converting propane to propene. “Boron nitride catalysts are nontoxic, they don’t contain precious metals and they reduce the temperature of the reaction, resulting in energy savings,” Grant adds.

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