Turbo-test for Chemical Accelerators - New Catalysts Create Energy Options

(f.l.t.r.) Dr. rer. nat. Dirk Demuth, Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Ferdi Schüth, Dr. rer. nat. Wolfram Stichert

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Ferdi Schüth (Spokesperson)*
Dr. rer. nat. Dirk Demuth
Dr. rer. nat. Wolfram Stichert

*Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung,
Mülheim an der Ruhr
hte Aktiengesellschaft, Heidelberg

Catalysts are what get chemical reactions going. They help remove harmful pollutants from exhaust gases, extract basic materials for dyes and drugs as efficiently as possible or produce plastics out of plant materials instead of petroleum. In doing so, they make an important contribution to climate protection and to saving energy and resources. Yet how can the best catalyst be found fast and cost efficiently?

Prof. Dr. Ferdi Schüth, Dr. Dirk Demuth and Dr. Wolfram Stichert show how to test a variety of different materials simultaneously for their suitability as catalysts – and to identify the most effective reaction accelerator reliably. Ferdi Schüth is a scientific member and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research. He is also one of the founders of the company hte AG in Heidelberg where he also serves on the Supervisory Board. Dirk Demuth is a co-founder of the company and is CEO/COO and chairman of the Board of Directors. Wolfram Stichert is a co-founder of hte AG and has served as CFO since 2003.

At the heart of the system developed by the three nominees is the parallel reactor technology. It combines several dozen individual tubes in which the reaction medium flows over different potential catalysts simultaneously. In this way, numerous experiments can be run at the same time which in the past had to be carried out as time-consuming single experiments. New catalysts, for example for cleaner combustion processes, can be found up to 100 times faster using this process. To realize the effective testing system, Schüth, Demuth, and Stichert also had to develop innovative and fast analysis technologies. Among other things, they used methods derived from artificial intelligence. Software specially adapted for the high throughout experimentation process which records and analyzes the data is also an important part of the development.

The nominees modeled their solution on a process used by the pharmaceuticals industry to analyze the efficacy of substances as active drug ingredients. However, the high reaction temperatures of several hundred degrees centigrade made a transfer to catalyst development difficult. The fact that they succeeded anyway is of tremendous importance for industry and climate protection. Sales of catalysts top over € 10m annually worldwide. The added value is even 100 to 1000 times higher. The high throughput experimentation process lowers the costs of catalyst development and lays the foundation for new technical possibilities in many sectors of industry: It provides automotive engineers with a tool to meet the stricter emission standards of the future. It helps replace petroleum with renewable raw materials, such as in the production of synthetic biofuels. And, it accelerates the development of new materials for powerful batteries to be used in electric cars.

In the late 1990’s, the research scientists began developing the parallel reactor system for catalyst testing. They succeeded in preparing a convincing concept which they were able to commercialize by founding the company hte (the high throughput experimentation company). BASF AG began sponsoring development with research contracts as of 1999 and in 2008 acquired 75% of the hte shares. In the meantime, hte has created over 160 jobs and generated a total of approx. € 100m in turnover since its founding. The high throughput experimentation process is successfully positioned in the market and is routinely employed by numerous businesses close to the chemical, petrochemical, and oil industries.