Millions of tons of materials are processed every day across the planet to manufacture a huge range of products that we need in our daily lives, from soaps, cosmetics through to cars and planes. A small amount of improvement in molecular knowledge from neutron scattering experiments can go a long way in improving the efficiency, quality and price of industrial products. The unique information from neutron scattering experiments can not only form the building blocks of energy efficient mass production for key industrial chemicals, but also contribute to confirming the best conditions for making precision components for the aerospace and automotive industries, and help the pharmaceutical industry to deal with chemical waste efficiently and safely.
Every year, more than 100,000 tonnes of methyl chloride are synthesized at one of the largest PVC manufacturers in Europe, to make a wide range of everyday materials from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Methyl chloride is made by passing methanol and hydrogen chloride through a catalyst that accelerates the chemical reaction. However, the manufacturer found that a side product is also produced during this process, causing a waste of energy and an increase in the cost of methanol recycle.
In a research collaboration between the University of Glasgow and the manufacturer, neutron scattering technique was used to understand what was happening at molecular scale on the surface of the catalyst. With the new insight achieved, the surface of the catalyst was subsequently modified by the manufacture, which almost completely eliminated the unwanted side product and avoided the need to construct a new waste treatment plant. As a result, the production cost was thus significantly reduced. The new catalyst has now been operating continuously on both of the methyl chloride reactors in the factory for several years. It is such molecular makeover technology that promotes energy-saving and environmentally friendly manufacturing.
Molecular insight gives industry
a competitive edge
The Lindlar catalyst is an important material used in the commercial manufacture of vitamins and a range of other products. It consists of the key metal elements: palladium and lead. The palladium is used to split hydrogen molecules in hydrogen gas into hydrogen atoms that are needed for chemical production, while the lead is used to activate the catalyst at a specific time in order to stop the reaction.
Evonik Industries, one of the catalyst manufacturers, produces many types of catalyst, including Lindlar. They have successfully used neutron scattering techniques, to reveal what exactly happens on the surface of the catalyst during a chemical reaction. Their understanding of the reaction mechanisms as well as the effectiveness of the Lindlar catalyst has been greatly improved. Neutron diffraction experiments can therefore help unlock the many secrets behind major industrial processes.
—— Konrad Möbus博士，Evonik化工集团
"Applying new analytical methods is one key step to understanding the critical parameters that control the performance of a catalyst. This will help us to improve further our industrial catalysts for the benefit of our customers."
—— Dr. Konrad Möbus, Evonik Industries
Stress relief for
Understanding stress distributions in aircraft parts after manufacturing is particularly important for the aircraft industry.
Neutron scattering can be used to map internal stresses giving information about the effectiveness of different manufacturing and processing techniques. The technique is well-suited for these studies as it is non-destructive and can look deep inside components. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus has used neutron scattering for many years to research the integrity of welds in aluminium alloys, and to assess their suitability for future aircraft. This enables engineers to adjust the manufacturing process and make lighter and safer aircraft parts at a lower cost.
—— Richard Burguete，空客公司实验力学专家
"Residual stress measurements using neutron scattering are invaluable for researching and developing existing and novel material manufacturing and processing techniques."
—— Richard Burguete, experimental mechanics specialist, Airbus
Tackling chemical waste
in the pharmaceutical industry
The treatment of chemical waste is an expensive problem for the pharmaceutical industry. The vast majority of the processes for making pharmaceutical ingredients are carried out in some form of organic solvent. Hence the high volatility and flammability of the organic solvent makes process safety an issue. Pharmaceutical ingredients also have to be free from all traces of residual solvent to ensure their safe usage.
Researchers have used neutron scattering technique to develop a new approach that can be used to treat the chemicals more easily and meanwhile to reduce waste. Ionic liquids are highly stable, non-flammable solvents that do not emit dangerous volatile organic components, and do not leave any residuals in the final product either. Professor Chris Hardacre at Queen’s University Belfast developed a new technique using ionic liquids for pharmaceutical applications. Neutron scattering data was essential in obtaining the molecular structure of the liquid and to develop the correct pharmaceutical recipes. In the future, ionic liquids could potentially revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.