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Brookhaven-developed Recyclable Catalyst May Help to Reduce Hazardous Industrial Waste

Brookhaven chemists have developed a new, “green” catalyst — one that converts chemical reactants into usable products without producing waste.
-- by Laura Mgrdichian and Karen McNulty Walsh

At industrial plants, where the household products in our kitchens, garages, backyards, and bathrooms are made, generating waste continues to be an inevitable part of the creation process. Even the production of organic compounds, such as pharmaceuticals, results in unusable by-products that can be hazardous to the environment and costly to eliminate.

These waste chemicals are generated from reactions that produce plastics, herbicides, pesticides, paper, cleansers, rubber, and lubricants, to name a few. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, industrial manufacturing processes produce tens of millions of pounds of organic waste chemicals each year. Many of these substances have already been documented as contaminants to wildlife and natural resources.

Brookhaven chemists Morris Bullock (left) and Vladimir Dioumaev examine catalyst samples before analyzing them using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

The proposed mechanism for the reaction in which the “green” catalyst is employed and, thereby, eliminates the production of waste.

At Brookhaven Lab, chemists Morris Bullock and Vladimir Dioumaev have joined in the movement of scientists looking for ways to address this problem. Using funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, they have developed a catalyst that converts chemical reactants into usable products without producing waste, allowing it to be used over and over again. The discovery may help reduce the amount of hazardous waste entering the environment, as well as the amount of money that businesses spend to treat and dispose of waste.

The new “green” catalyst accomplishes two significant goals. First, it works by removing one stage of the reaction: the new catalyst eliminates the need to use solvents in the process by which many organic compounds are synthesized. The catalyst does this by dissolving into the reactants, thus eliminating the need for a separate solvent in which the reagents are mixed to set the reaction in motion.

“Avoiding the use of solvents is an important way to prevent waste in chemical processes,” says Bullock.

Second, the catalyst has the unique ability of being easily removed and recycled. This is so because, at the end of the reaction, the catalyst precipitates out of products as a solid material, allowing it to be separated from the products without using additional chemical solvents. Instead, “It separates itself,” comments Dioumaev. “You can simply pour the products into another container and use the catalyst again.”


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