Whatever project one is working on, downfalls are inevitable parts of research. It is important, though, once facing a wall to be able to walk around instead of climbing or trying to break through it.
We have been fighting with exhaust aftertreatment catalyst deactivation for 4 years with the ultimate goal of producing a stable catalyst by modifying material properties. The intrinsic issue with metal-zeolite catalysts is that they are very prone to sintering, aggregation of particles under reaction conditions. We managed to overcome this issue by a simple base titration, which eliminated all acid sites in the catalyst, which were responsible for this effect. Yet, even though sintering was defeated, we still observed a slow degradation of the catalyst, which over a course of long time (exhaust catalyst needs to operate several years before the vehicle is phased out) would lead to unsatisfactory decline in the activity. The origin of this slow deactivation, a phenomenon we will address in detail in our next work, requires simultaneous precise control of numerous parameters in the synthesis of the support material to overcome, which is challenging. Yet, by looking at the problem from a different perspective, we managed to achieve stable methane conversion even on a not completely stable material using a very simple non-steady-state catalytic converter operation, a thing inspired by chemical engineering which uses swing processes.
This is a perfect illustration of a multidisciplinary approach to solving a problem: we combined nanomaterial development with chemical reaction engineering, both of which separately would not give a satisfactory result. Nowadays, when simple ways of solving problems become increasingly scarce, it is especially valuable to be able from time to time to go beyond the boundaries of one’s world, be it materials science, biology, engineering or physics, and get an insight to the problem from the point of view of another discipline. How often does a natural scientist think of engineering or economic aspects of his work these days? Whatever the number is, “not enough” is the actual answer. So if one is stuck with a problem and can’t find a solution, maybe it is the right moment to check out people from other departments. Results can be staggering!
You can find our paper in Nature Communications here: