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Physcial Sciences Division
Research Highlights

July 2009

Teaching Catalysts to Play Ball

Catalysis expert shares insights on chemical characterization with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers

Jean-Pierre Gilson
Prof. Jean-Pierre Gilson.

For over three decades, zeolites have been used as catalysts to refine gasoline and other fuels. The solid materials have holes that are just the right size to allow smaller molecules to pass through, while keeping larger molecules out. But recent research shows that some zeolites may be vastly underperforming, according to Prof. Jean-Pierre Gilson, Director, Laboratoire Catalyse and Spectrochimie (LCS), Caen, France. Gilson recently offered new insights on zeolite chemistry during a talk for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Frontiers in Catalysis Science and Engineering Seminar Series. The series features academic, government, and industrial leaders who discuss novel ideas and advancements in practical, important catalysis research and development.

Not even in the ballpark. Gilson likened zeolite’s ability as a catalyst to a baseball game. Using advanced tools like infrared spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, LCS staff proved that, in some cases, only 60% of the zeolite was actually playing ball, or doing its job as a catalyst. “Nearly half the material,” Gilson said, “wasn’t working at all. In fact, you could say that portion was completely outside the stadium and didn’t even know a ballgame was being played!” Being able to get that material to function at 100% could greatly improve the efficiency of chemical and oil refining.

“One of the challenges addressed by PNNL’s Institute for Integrated Catalysis is to understand how to design catalyst structures to control activity and selectivity,” said Dr. Charles Peden, Interim Director of the institute. “Collaborating with experts like Dr. Gilson helps us understand how zeolites perform, so we can ask the right questions to optimize performance.”

About Professor Gilson: Prof. Gilson earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry at the University of Namur in his native Belgium. He worked for many years in industry in the United States and the Netherlands before joining LCS, where he is currently director. His work on zeolite reactions will be featured in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Molecular Catalysis A: Chemical.

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