A rare breed of machine is tucked away inside Idaho National Laboratory’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies.
It’s called a temporal analysis of products reactor. There are only three in the country and about 20 in the world. Each one is custom built in St. Louis, and costs more than $800,000. INL bought its TAP reactor in September.
The purpose of the reactor is to study catalysts, mysterious materials used to manufacture everything from plastics to diapers, diesel fuel to fertilizer. Usually made up of several metals, catalysts help speed up chemical reactions, often involving petroleum. “Without catalysis, you would not be able to support modern life,” said Rebecca Fushimi, an INL research scientist and catalyst expert.
There’s just one problem: Despite decades of relying on catalysts for manufacturing and other purposes such as a car’s catalytic converter, scientists still don’t know much about how they actually work.
“We know it works, but we don’t know how,” Fushimi said. “And if we don’t know how it’s working, we don’t know how to make it better.”
That’s where the TAP reactor comes in. It allows Fushimi and a few other post-doctoral INL researchers to study the traits of different types of catalysts, which are placed in the center of the contraption. Four valves located on top shoot pulses of various kinds of gas molecules at the sample catalyst. Some molecules sit on the surface of the catalyst and cause a chemical reaction. Others bounce back off.
A computer system connected to the reactor measures how fast the reaction occurred, or how much of a given type of material was created.
“Then we can begin to understand how the catalytic material is controlling the energy, the speed and the direction of the reactions,” Fushimi said.
The end goal, she said, is to develop new catalysts that help make large-scale manufacturing of consumer goods less energy intensive and more environmentally friendly. American researchers also want to know how to make certain consumer products out of natural gas rather than the current go-to, petroleum. Natural gas is more abundant in the U.S., but is mostly used for purposes such as heating, cooking and electricity production.
“The (TAP reactor) system allows you to examine how these materials work as catalysts, and how they promote certain kinds of reactions,” said John Gleaves, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the inventor of the TAP reactor system.
Gleaves, who taught Fushimi how to use the system when she was a graduate student, has a shop in St. Louis that continues to be the only place that produces the reactor systems. INL’s TAP reactor is the first to be located at a national laboratory. Gleaves said he continues to refine the design of the reactor system each time he builds a new one.
He first designed a version of the reactor in 1977, and continued to develop the system when he worked at Monsanto in the 1980s, eventually starting a company to build and distribute them in 1990. Early on, many people told Gleaves his idea for studying catalysts wouldn’t work, even his fellow researchers. There aren’t so many skeptics anymore.
“Our technological society is built on catalysis,” Gleaves said. “In the future, the system we’ve built will be used to develop new catalysts, and has the potential to make really significant contributions to the well being of mankind.”
Last week, academic researchers including Gleaves and representatives from major companies such as Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil convened at INL over several days to learn more about catalysts and how the TAP reactor works.
“That’s one of the problems that we face,” Fushimi said. “There are only 20 (TAP) systems, it’s not widely adopted — so people don’t understand how it works. We’re trying to spread the message and show people how unique it is.”
Fushimi, a leading expert in catalysts and TAP reactors, was recruited to INL nine months ago. She hopes to slowly build a team of researchers that know how to use the machine, and can be responsive to chemical and manufacturing companies that might need help developing improved catalysts.
Dan Ginosar, INL’s market lead for advanced manufacturing and intelligent systems, said catalyst research will be an area of growth for the lab in the coming years. There is high demand for research in the catalyst field so that the U.S. chemical industry can keep pace with international companies, he said.
“People might not be familiar with exactly what a catalyst is or what it does,” Fushimi said. “But a catalyst is enormously important for making a modern way of life possible. Without it, we couldn’t have all of the things that we love.”
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth