Cobalt discovery replaces precious metals as industrial catalyst

Nov 27, 2012
The artwork depicts the substitution of cobalt for precious metals in catalysis as a variation on the ancient alchemical theme of transmuting base metals into precious ones.

(—Cobalt, a common mineral, holds promise as an industrial catalyst with potential applications in such energy-related technologies such as the production of biofuels and the reduction of carbon dioxide. That is, provided the cobalt is captured in a complex molecule so it mimics the precious metals that normally serve this industrial role.

In work published Nov. 26 in the international edition of the chemistry journal , Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists report the possibility of replacing the normally used noble metal catalysts with cobalt.

Catalysts are the parallel of the Philosopher's Stone for chemistry. They cannot change lead to gold, but they do transform one into another while remaining unchanged themselves. Perhaps the most familiar example of comes from systems that change into more benign gases, but catalysts are also integral to thousands of industrial, synthetic, and renewable energy processes where they accelerate or optimize a mind-boggling array of chemical reactions.  It's not an exaggeration to say that without catalysts, there would be no modern industry.

But a drawback to catalysts is that the most effective ones tend to be literally precious. They are the noble metal elements such as platinum, palladium, , and ruthenium, which are a prohibitively expensive resource when required in large quantities. In the absence of a genuine Philosopher's Stone, they could also become increasingly expensive as industrial applications increase worldwide. A push in sustainable chemistry has been to develop alternatives to the precious metal catalysts by using relatively inexpensive, earth-abundant metals. The chemical complexities  of the more common metals have made this research a challenge, but the Los Alamos paper holds out hope that the earth-abundant metal cobalt can serve in place of its pricier relatives.

Cobalt, like iron and other transition metals in the Periodic Table, is cheap and relatively abundant, but it has a propensity to undergo irreversible reactions rather than emerging unchanged from chemical reactions as is required of an effective catalyst. The breakthrough by the Los Alamos team was to capture the cobalt atom in a complex molecule in such a way that it can mimic the reactivity of precious metal catalysts, and do so in a wide range of circumstances.

The findings of the Los Alamos team have major ramifications and suggest that cobalt complexes are rich with possibility for future catalyst development. Due to the high performance and low cost of the metal, the cobalt catalyst has potential applications in energy-related technologies such as the production of biofuels, and the reduction of carbon dioxide. It also has implications for organic chemistry, where hydrogenation is a commonly practiced catalytic reaction that produces important industrial chemical precursors.

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More information: Zhang, G. et al., Mild and Homogeneous Cobalt-Catalyzed Hydrogenation of C=C, C=O, and C=N Bonds, Angewandte Chemie International Edition. DOI: 10.1022/anie.201206051.

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5 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2012
This is amazing technology. If it works in real-world industrial applications it will solve one of the great problems of the 21st Century, namely the scarcity and high price of precious metals.

The article didn't mention any commercial trials for these cobalt catalysts.
not rated yet Nov 27, 2012
This is amazing technology. If it works in real-world industrial applications it will solve one of the great problems of the 21st Century, namely the scarcity and high price of precious metals.

The article didn't mention any commercial trials for these cobalt catalysts.

Equally important --if not more so-- would be that all of the rare earth related toxic waste stream, environmental- and health hazards could be substantially reduced, possibly entirely so --although that's probably stretching it.

not rated yet Nov 27, 2012

Bonus for also reducing reliance upon bottlenecked, easily manipulated stocks held by not-always-so-cooperative, or fair or friendly-- sovereign suppliers.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2012
@Caliban -- Yes, this would be an big win economically, environmentally, and for international security. I hope that commercial development of this technology is successful and rapid.
not rated yet Nov 29, 2012
@Caliban--How is this going to reduce wastes related to rare earths?
4 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2012
@Caliban--How is this going to reduce wastes related to rare earths?

By reducing the need to mine and refine the ores that are typically used for rare-earth extraction, and contain a whole suite of highly toxic, reactive, and radioactive elements, that contribute to adverse environmental and human health effects.

Cobalt is a very abundant metal found in ores that don't contribute nearly as much to a waste stream with that level and longevity of toxicity.

Therefore, any replacement of rare earths by cobalt will lead to a reduction in rare-earth associated waste production.

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