AI shows path toward eco-efficient production of key industrial compound

Aug 6, 2019

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

UCLA chemical engineers and their French and Belgian colleagues have discovered a more sustainable way to produce amines –  key compounds used in a variety of industrial processes.

Philippe SautetThe study was published in Nature Catalysis and was led by Philippe Sautet, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.

Amines are a class of compounds derived from ammonia. They are commonly used as intermediaries to make pharmaceuticals, chemicals for the agricultural and food industries, polymers, and dyes.

The current standard method of producing amines uses a combination of ammonia and other chemicals. However, these methods produce a lot of harmful and otherwise unusable waste products that must be properly disposed of.

An alternative production method could start with biologically produced alcohols, such as those from processed food waste and agricultural waste, and combine them with ammonia in a series of chemical reactions. The biggest ecological advantage in such a process is that the only by product would be water.

However, amine production requires its own catalysts and the best options for them are unknown.

In addition, a variety of amines can be produced by this type of reaction and only one type, called a primary anime, has practical interest for industrial processes.

Catalysis Schematic
Schematic showing how a metal, cobalt with silver, catalyzes a reaction that produces amines and water.

Using machine learning, the researchers narrowed down hundreds of metal and two-metal compounds that could best catalyze the production of the desired amines. This included atomic-level modeling of how the catalysts and precursor compounds respond with each other; and the rates of subsequent chemical reactions.

The team then conducted catalytic experiments with 76 candidates. They found the best catalysts would be combinations of the metals cobalt, silver and ruthenium.

Other authors on the study included researchers from France’s National Center for Scientific Research; the University of Lyon, France; the University of Lille, France; the University of Ghent, Belgium; and Solvay, a chemical company headquartered in Brussels.

The research was supported by the French National Research Agency.

Sautet also holds a UCLA faculty appointment in chemistry and biochemistry and is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute.

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