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sustainability /

green chemistry

Optimizing Fe-based catalysis

in carbon dioxide hydrogenation
reactions for future synthesis of liquid
hydrocarbons from seawater
*Corresponding author
1. NRC Postdoctoral Research Associate, Materials Science & Technology Division, Code 6300.2, Naval Research Laboratory, 4555 Overlook Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C., USA
2. NOVA Research Inc., 1900 Elkin Street, Alexandria, VA. 22308, USA
3. Naval Reserve Officer P38, Materials Science & Technology Division, Code 6300.2, Naval Research Laboratory, 4555 Overlook Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C., USA
4. Materials Science & Technology Division, Code 6300.2, Naval Research Laboratory, 4555 Overlook Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C., USA

conventional Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis (2) and biomass

processing (3). However, these approaches do not solve
Catalysis, carbon dioxide utilization, renewable energy. the risks associated with delivering fuel at sea and they
are not sufficiently sustainable with respect to the possible
ABSTRACT negative impact to the environment (especially, with the
generation of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a green-house
The current global reliance upon petroleum fuel presents gaseous byproduct). Thus, alternative synthetic approaches
unique challenges to develop new, sustainable solutions to producing fuel should be considered for the realization of
to address present and future energy demands. This long-term, practical solutions for the US Navy.
perspective describes the research efforts at the US
Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to address basic
research challenges in the capture and utilization of CARBON DIOXIDE AND HYDROGEN PRODUCTION
CO2 from seawater, where contemporaneous work in FROM SEAWATER: RENEWABLE TOOLS FOR FUELS
this field is cited. Recent work to optimize CO2 extraction
20 from seawater is briefly highlighted, featuring progress CO2 utilization has received much attention by the
towards the operational scale-up and demonstration of scientific community due to its global availability as
an integrated process. The bulk of this article focuses on a potential carbon feedstock for the production of a
concurrent research to develop catalysts and test their large variety of synthetic commodity precursors such as
performance in the hydrogenation of CO2, where results dimethylcarbonate, formic acid, methanol, methane,
in transitioning from a continuous-stirred tank reactor olefins, paraffins, and polycarbonates (4-6). With respect to
(CSTR) system to a more modular and scalable fixed-bed production of synthetic transportation fuels, the utilization
system are detailed. Efforts to further improve and scale- of CO2 as a feedstock could be considered
up fixed-bed systems are also pointed out with respect to carbon-neutral since it is removed from the environment
stabilizing catalysts against degradation effects of water and converted into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Upon
produced in the hydrogenation of CO2. combustion of the fuel, carbon dioxide is returned to the
environment to complete the carbon cycle. In recent
years, reports of different technologies designed to capture
CO2 for either sequestration or utilization have included
membranes and traditional amine based systems for
INTRODUCTION: THE CURRENT AND FUTURE DEMAND CO2 extraction from air or flue gas (7), biogeneration from
FOR SUSTAINABLE CARBON SOURCES bacterial, algae farms for biomass processing, and water-
gas shift reaction from industrial syngas (8). Considering

n unmet and direct need to identify renewable these recent innovations to secure CO2 as a carbon source
supplies for current and future global energy for fuels and chemical feedstock, it has been accurately
demands presents scientists with a grand challenge stated by He and co-workers that we live in the age
to resolve the conventional reliance upon petroleum-based of carbon(9). NRL has developed a novel approach
fossil fuels. The heavy dependence upon volatile foreign for the extraction of CO2 from seawater via a patented
oil markets results in both a strategic and logistical risk for electrochemical acidification process (10-14). By converting
the US Navy when supplying active battle groups with the inorganic carbon as carbonate and bicarbonate
needed aviation and marine fuel. One proposed solution is species present in aqueous equilibrium to carbonic acid,
the synthesis of fuel at sea, where it is envisioned that liquid carbon is removed from seawater in the form of CO2 at 92%
hydrocarbon fuels that meet or exceed military specifications efficiency. Since its initial development, this CO2 capture
would be produced at or near point-of-use (1). In comparison technology has been scaled-up and demonstrated in Key
with petroleum-derived fuels, higher product quality is West, Florida, where further improvements are ongoing.
expected from this ground-up synthetic approach further Coincidentally, in the same electrochemical cell, hydrogen
improving the overall cost of fuel production and distribution is produced with the capture of CO2 in a ratio that is
in-theater. Recent strategies by the US Department of conducive for the synthesis of hydrocarbons by way of CO2
Defense (DOD) to move towards fuel independence include hydrogenation (CO2:H2 = 1:3).

Chimica Oggi - Chemistry Today - vol. 31(6) November/December 2013

sustainability /
green chemistry
CO2 HYDROGENATION BY THERMOCHEMICAL CATALYSIS methane generation (compare 22.2 to 26.0%).
However, in moving the same catalyst to a fixed-bed
Recognizing the CO2 capture system as a carbon reactor, there was a significant increase of unreacted
source for future fuel synthesis, the next step at NRL was CO (compare 47.3 to 11.5%) and a reduced C2-C5+
to identify a viable route to convert captured CO2 into yield (compare 30.5 to 62.4%). However, modification of
value-added hydrocarbons. There have been recent the fixed-bed reactor GHSV by either changing mass of
advances in electrochemical (15), electrocatalytic(16), catalyst and/or flow rate of reactant gases permitted a
and photocatalytic (17) hydrogenation of carbon dioxide, systematic improvement of performance compared to
however, each of these approaches exhibit limitations the original CSTR conditions. For GHSV = 0.000093 L/sg
with respect to low CO2 conversion efficiencies, selectivity (Table 1B, condition b), CO2 conversion increased to
towards lower molecular weight products (e.g., methane, 60% with additional gains in olefin-to-paraffin ratio (O/P)
methanol), and the technologies are prohibitively (compare 5.6 to 4.2 in CSTR) and comparable selectivity
expensive or sensitive for scale-up considerations. Following for methane and C2-C5+ fraction. These results, along with
a more conventional thermochemical approach, it has kinetic and modeling data, suggest a potential route for
been shown that higher molecular weight olefins/paraffins scale-up production with good selectivity for targeted light
can be produced exclusive of oxygenated by-products olefin products which may be further upgraded via well-
with good selectivity for jet fuel fraction sizing (e.g., C9-C16 studied olefin oligomerizaton processing to jet fuel-quality
carbon number) (18,19). Based on previous work by Riedel hydrocarbons. The objective had then shifted to further
and coworkers (20,21), NRL first designed an iron-based improve the CO2 hydrogenation process with respect to
catalyst with Mn and K promoters on alumina support reactor design and catalyst improvements (40).
and sequentially tested its performance in a continuously-
stirred tank reactor (CSTR) for the hydrogenation of CO2
(22-24). Iron-based catalysts are attractive for their low CATALYST MODIFICATION AND PRODUCT UPGRADING
cost, abundance, and good activity for light olefin (C2-C6)
production when reduced first to an iron carbide phase One of the main concerns for CO2 hydrogenation
(25, 26), as opposed to other transition metal catalysts by thermochemical methods is the prevalence
such as those based on Ni (27, 28) or Co (29, 30) that of degradation pathways that reduce catalyst
predominantly favor methane formation under similar performance and product selectivity over time. These
reaction conditions. processes have been extensively reviewed for syngas
The conversion and selectivity to light olefin products is and can include particle attrition, oxidation/sintering
further improved by promoting with metals such as K (31) effects from water, as well as other modes of catalyst
and Mn (32, 33). As similar K/Mn/Fe-based catalyst systems poisoning, to name but a few (41, 42). Costs associated
were found effective for CO2 hydrogenation (34-37), this with catalyst replenishment/recycle and associated
served as a logical basis for investigations conducted at down-time and discontinuity of reactor processes
NRL where we have recently reported a review describing often are prohibitive for scale-up considerations, 21
metal loading effects (38). and in the case of hydrogenation reactions where
An optimal catalyst composition was determined by water is produced as a byproduct. This has certainly
a step-wise building of the Fe-based catalysts with been the case when CO2 rather than CO is utilized
intermittent performance testing (Table 1, A), where as the carbon feedstock.
a catalyst composition of K/Mn/
Fe/-Al2O3 supported catalyst of
8:12:17:100 led to significant gains in
CO2 conversion (over 40%) as well
as improved olefin concentration
and reduced methane generation.
However, for the scale-up of
hydrocarbon production at the point-
of-use applications (e.g., design of a
fuel production ship or platform), it was
determined that the CSTR technology
would be limiting with respect to the
reactor size required for fuel quantities
needed (39). Therefore catalyst
prepared by the same method was
tested in a fixed-bed reactor that
had been modeled computationally
as a modular reactor, at different
gas-hourly space velocities (GHSVs)
to determine the effect of catalyst
packing and flow rate of reactant
Reactor conditions: (A) 1015 g catalyst dispersed in approximately 400 mL of mineral oil (Aldrich) in the CSTR (Parr
gas feed on CO2 % conversion and Instruments), reduced in CO (563 K, 48 h), hydrogenation of CO2 (563 K, 1333 kPa (13.6 atm), GHSV=0.0015 L/sg at
product selectivity (40). Under GHSV a H2:CO2 ratio of 3:1); (B) 20 gram mixture of 80-200 mesh -Al2O3 with K/Mn/Fe-Al2O3 (8:12:17:100 wt%) to obtain
reported space velocities in 9 inch long SS fixed-bed (3/8 inch ID, 1/2 inch OD) reduced with CO at 265 psig and 593
similar to that of the CSTR (GHSV = K for 2 hours and then hydrogenation of CO2 was at 593 K, 1827 kPa (265 psig) with a H2/CO2 ratio of 3:1. The effluent
gas analysis by gas chromatography described in Experimental Sections (23, 40).
0.0015 L/sg, Table1B, condition f),
there were slight improvements to CO2 Table 1. Effects of changing composition of alumina-supported iron-based catalysts on CO2
conversion percent (compare 44.7 to hydrogenation performance in preliminary tests in CSTR (A) and GHSV-optimized fixed-bed
41.4%) as well as olefin/paraffin ratio reactors (B).
(compare 4.6 to 4.2) and reduced

Chimica Oggi - Chemistry Today - vol. 31(6) November/December 2013

sustainability /
green chemistry
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