Haldor Topsoe A/S today announced the publication of a breakthrough study in Nature Materials, a monthly high-profile scientific journal focused on materials science and engineering. The research article, featured in the current issue, describes observations revealing a catalyst ‘in action’ on the atomic-scale under conditions similar to those in automotive catalytic systems used to clean the engine exhaust from diesel vehicles.
“In popular terms we created a miniaturized version of the catalyst found in the tailpipe of a diesel vehicle and that made it possible to observe it in operation for the first time ever,” says Stig Helveg, senior research scientist in Topsoe and one of the authors behind the article.
Understanding how catalysts steer chemical reactions is of key importance in the development of a wide range of efficient energy and environmental technologies. The recent study is the result of Topsoe’s participation in an international consortium, and was made possible by employing a newly developed nanoreactor. This nanoreactor is essentially a catalyst created on an extremely small silicon chip inserted into one of Topsoe’s high-resolution electron microscopes.
“As part of the study we were able to record atomically resolved pictures of the catalyst, and even more important, carry out a concurrent monitoring of its functionality. This is game-changing because it significantly broadens our basic understanding of the automotive process, and potentially impact other fields of catalysis as well,” explains Stig Helveg.
By looking directly at the catalyst in action, the researchers discovered that its surface fluctuates over time and this allowed them to solve a puzzle that remained unsolved for years in catalysis:
“The nanoreactor makes it possible for us to visualize an entirely new dimension of the catalytic reaction that explains why it oscillates due to dynamic changes in the catalyst surface. This insight can be used to improve the performance of our catalysts and consequently also the many industrial applications they are part of,” says Stig Helveg.
The nanoreactor now being presented to the outside world is currently the smallest reactor being employed in Topsoe’s R&D efforts. It has been under development for more than 11 years in a close collaboration with TU Delft, FEI and Topsoe and the present study was done within the framework of the international consortium named Nano-Imaging under Industrial Conditions (NIMIC).