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Making oil with stone A new boron-based reaction could make synthetic oil production more efficient

August 24, 2020

Current industrial methods for creating synthetic oils like engine lubricant or jet fuel, from carbon oxides and hydrogen, require the use of heavy metals and operation at high temperatures. UTokyo researchers discovered a new way of doing this with a reagent, a substance which enables a particular chemical reaction. The reagent consists of the element boron, extracted from a certain kind of ore, and it works at room temperature. This demonstrates that far greater conversion efficiency is achievable.

For around 100 years, the Fischer-Tropsch processes, developed in Germany, have been the industry standard method for producing synthetic oil from hydrogen and either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. This process uses heavy metals such as iron and cobalt to mediate the reaction. But this process requires high-pressure environments and temperatures in excess of 200 degrees Celsius to work, which consumes a great deal of energy.

Professor Kyoko Nozaki and her team from the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology decided they would try and improve upon the efficiency of the Fischer-Tropsch process and have recently achieved success.

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Oil. Synthetic oils are commonly used as engine lubricants or jet fuel. Image: wi6995 - stock.adobe.com

"We found a reaction similar to that of the Fischer-Tropsch process, but that proceeds without using any heavy metals,” said Nozaki. “Instead we use reagent containing boron, which is a component of certain ores; this can work at ordinary room temperature."

The reaction works by combining carbon molecules from either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide into chains. This can only happen when the oxygen molecules are removed by a substance called a reducing agent. In the Fischer-Tropsch process ordinary hydrogen is used, but this boron system requires a more powerful substance based on lithium and hydrogen.

“Although we need a further breakthrough in order to make use of ordinary hydrogen, we hope to see research in this area accelerate since our reagent provides a completely new direction for reaction design,” said Nozaki. “If applied in industrial settings, we expect it could greatly reduce energy use.”

Papers

Andreas Phanopoulos, Shrinwantu Pal, Takafumi Kawakami and Kyoko Nozaki, "Heavy-Metal-Free Fischer-Tropsch Type Reaction: Sequential Homologation of Alkylborane Using a Combination of CO and Hydrides as Methylene Source," Journal of the American Chemical Society 2020, 142, 33, 14064–14068: August 7, 2020, doi:10.1021/jacs.0c06580.
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