U helps develop catalyst that may lower gas prices

Testing for industrial use could take only a year.

Lead researcher and professor Michael Tsapatsis poses Tuesday with the model of the enzyme he has been researching in Amundson Hall. The enzyme can increase the efficiency of chemical reactions, which could reduce costs in fuel, pharmaceutical and other chemical industries.

Blake Leigh

Lead researcher and professor Michael Tsapatsis poses Tuesday with the model of the enzyme he has been researching in Amundson Hall. The enzyme can increase the efficiency of chemical reactions, which could reduce costs in fuel, pharmaceutical and other chemical industries.

Rebecca Harrington

Nanosheets — thin layers of silicon the size of a molecule — stacked like a house of cards could be the cure for rising gas prices.

The University of Minnesota led an international research team that developed a new catalyst with the nanosheets, which could improve efficiencies and decrease costs in fuel, chemical and pharmaceutical production.

Michael Tsapatsis, the lead researcher and a University professor of chemical engineering and materials science, said the collaboration of universities and companies from Korea, Sweden, Japan, United Arab Emirates and Florida has been working on the research for five years.

In the past, he said, growing the crystal structure of similar catalysts was like designing a city with only streets and no highways. The nanosheets have small holes, which Tsapatsis called streets, where molecules pass through during the chemical reaction.

The highways are actually mistakes in crystal formation, he said, that cause nanosheets to grow perpendicular to the previous one, creating larger holes for the molecules to pass through more quickly.

Tsapatsis said the catalyst researchers developed grows with both the metaphorical highways and streets at the same time, saving money, which could translate to cost savings in refining gasoline.

The catalyst still needs to be tested for use in gasoline and natural gas industries, but Tsapatsis said testing could take just a year.

“These are two applications where we think the catalyst would have good properties,” he said, “but it has to be tested in the actual industrial type setting.”

Tsapatsis said he co-founded a company that will be testing the catalyst once it gets the funding.