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Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2019, 63, (4), 265


Exploring Microemulsion-Prepared Lanthanum Catalysts for Natural Gas Valorisation

Catalysts for small scale application in natural gas and biomass conversion

  • Cristina Estruch Bosch*, Stephen Poulston, Paul Collier
  • Johnson Matthey, Blounts Court, Sonning Common, Reading, RG4 9NH, UK
  • Joris W. Thybaut, Guy B. Marin
  • Laboratory for Chemical Technology (LCT), Department of Materials, Textiles and Chemical Engineering, Ghent University, Technologiepark-Zwijnaarde 125, B-9052 Gent, Belgium
  • *Email:

Article Synopsis

Microemulsions were used to develop a catalyst with high selectivity towards ethylene and ethane while maintaining considerable methane (CH4) conversion. The use of this technique to produce lanthanum nanoparticles was studied under different conditions. Temperature was shown to have the most significant effect on the final material properties providing a minimum crystallite size at 25°C. The morphology observed for all the samples was flake or needle like materials containing nanocrystallites. To obtain the catalytically active materials a thermal treatment was needed and this was studied using in situ X-ray diffraction (XRD). This analysis demonstrated that the materials exhibited significant changes in phase and crystallite size when submitted to thermal treatment and these were shown to be difficult to control, meaning that the microemulsion synthesis method is a challenging route to produce La nanoparticles in a reproducible manner. The materials were tested for oxidative coupling of methane (OCM) and no correlation could be observed between the ‘as synthesised’ crystallite size and activity. However, the presence of La carbonates in the materials produced was deemed to be crucial to ensure an adequate OCM activity.

1. Introduction

There has been significant interest in converting gas, in particular CH4, into liquids (gas to liquid (GTL)) (1). Nowadays, two main GTL processes are used: (a) syngas production followed by Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis (2, 3); and (b) liquified natural gas (LNG) (4, 5). However, these processes require huge investments and their economic viability generally requires them to be carried out at very large scale (6), preferably exceeding 1000 tonnes per year. Therefore, they are mainly employed when low priced natural gas is available, typically in large quantities. As of today, the interest in exploiting small reservoirs has increased significantly, particularly because the gas from such reservoirs is often simply burnt as no other conversion technologies are available or commercially viable. On the other hand, interest in biomass and waste conversion (7) is increasing and this will require processes that are economically viable at small scale.

The development of small GTL plants based on FT is already happening with the use of microreactors and improved catalysts (6). On the other hand, efforts in finding new ways of producing liquids from gas are continuing. An example is the direct production of ethylene from CH4 by oxidative coupling (810). Ethylene is one of the largest-volume petrochemicals and the building block for a vast range of chemicals from plastics to antifreeze solutions and solvents (11). Ethylene is currently mainly obtained from energy-intensive steam cracking of a wide range of hydrocarbon feedstocks.

OCM was first investigated in the early 1980s by Keller and Bhasin (12). In 1985, Lunsford (2) showed that, starting from CH4, lithium/magnesium oxide (Li/MgO) could give a 19% yield for C2, with ethylene as the main C2 species. Since then, many catalyst combinations have been investigated for OCM with the highest obtained C2 yields in the range 25–30% (13, 14). The most common catalyst formulations have been oxides based on alkaline earth metals doped with alkali metals and rare earth metals doped with alkali or alkaline earth metals (3). Several studies have shown that the activity of the OCM catalyst is affected by catalyst structural properties, such as morphology (15, 16). Also basicity and oxygen ion conductivity, which have been identified as key parameters for this reaction, are influenced by catalyst structural properties, such as particle size (1719).

In parallel to catalyst development and considering the challenges encountered in finding catalysts able to perform OCM economically, efforts have recently been directed to the reactor design. There have been a number of different approaches to novel reactor design, the common factor being the use of membranes. In particular, for OCM, the use of membranes has been of interest because of its perceived ability to control the oxygen concentration in the gas phase and, therefore, decrease the undesired over oxidation (20, 21). Johnson Matthey has been involved recently in four European projects working in OCM: CAtalytic membrane REactors based on New mAterials for C1–C4 valorization (CARENA), MEthane activation via integrated MEmbrane REactors (MEMERE), Adaptable Reactors for Resource- and Energy-Efficient Methane Valorisation (ADREM) and Oxidative Coupling of Methane followed by Oligomerization to Liquids (OCMOL). The first two, CARENA and MEMERE, have been dealing with the use of membranes for this reaction. CARENA, a four-year Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) carried out between 2011 and 2015, aimed at investigating the use of relevant process intensification and catalytic membrane reactors to transform light alkanes (C1–C4) and CO2 to added-value products. Currently running is MEMERE, a four-year EU Horizon 2020 project that started in 2015 aimed at the conversion of CH4 to ethylene using a membrane reactor with integrated air separation. Additionally, the use of non-thermal plasma reactors is also being evaluated for OCM (22, 23). ADREM, a four-year EU Horizon 2020 project, is looking at using innovative reactor types for CH4 activation processes including a plasma reactor for OCM.

OCMOL, a five-year FP7 project, aimed to integrate energetic coupling of OCM and CO2 reforming in a heat exchange reactor that was used to recycle CO2 produced by the OCM reaction. The integration of OCM with other well-known processes to produce fuels or chemicals is another interesting approach and, indeed, this integration seems to be more important than the actual catalyst performance. A new follow up project, Methane oxidative conversion and hydroformylation to propylene (C123), has recently started and will be looking at transforming CH4 into C3 products via OCM which will simultaneously provide an optimum ratio of ethylene, carbon monoxide and hydrogen for its further hydroformylation into propanal or propanol. Ultimately, propanol can be dehydrated into propylene; either by an integrated approach as part of the hydroformylation step or through a stand-alone approach. Siluria Technologies, Inc, USA is promoting a catalytic process that can transform natural or shale gas into transportation fuels and commodity chemicals in an efficient, cost effective, scalable manner using processes that can be seamlessly integrated into existing industry infrastructure. This process is based around two basic chemistries: OCM and ethylene to liquids. In particular, nanowires are used for the OCM reaction.

Although process integration and reactor design were key for the OCMOL project, understanding on how to improve the catalyst performance to obtain higher selectivity towards ethylene and higher CH4 conversion is still relevant as this will positively impact the process economics. The activity of the materials for OCM is closely related to their properties and it is well known that different properties are expected when comparing nanoparticles against the bulk material (24). Indeed, preliminary work has shown that nanomaterials with different morphologies could enhance the OCM performance at low temperatures (19). The present paper presents a summary of the work carried out within OCMOL around process integration and more particularly elaborates on the systematic study of the use of differently sized La-based nanoparticles for OCM which was a main focus of the catalyst development work in OCMOL carried out by Johnson Matthey. Flame spray pyrolysis (FSP) and microemulsion were the two methods investigated to produce La-based nanoparticles and results from the latter method will be presented and compared to data previously reported on the materials prepared by FSP (25).

2. Oxidative Coupling of Methane Followed by Oligomerization to Liquids Project

2.1. The Process

The aim of OCMOL was to create a laboratory scale demonstration of the production of liquid fuels using process intensification via cutting-edge microreactor technologies to integrate the exothermic OCM and endothermic reforming (RM). Oligomerisation of ethylene from the OCM step was employed to obtain liquid fuels. Another interesting characteristic of the process concept was the recycle of the undesired products and unreacted CH4 that aimed to be converted to syngas in the RM reactor, driven by the heat produced by the exothermic OCM. The syngas would then be converted to liquid fuels via oxygenate synthesis and oxygenate conversion to liquids. A schematic of the process can be seen in Figure 1.

Fig. 1.

Simplified process flow sheet for the OCMOL process concept (26)

Simplified process flow sheet for the OCMOL process concept (26)

This process not only presented challenges on the catalysis side but even more so on the engineering side. A combination of several reactions and separations was required including OCM, ethylene oligomerisation to liquids, membrane separation, pressure swing adsorption, CH4 dry reforming, oxygenate synthesis and oxygenate to liquids conversion to establish an economically viable process. High throughput methodologies were employed to more quickly overcome the challenges related to each of these steps and allowing, ultimately, to propose a green integrated chemical process with near zero CO2 emissions.

An advanced process simulation toolkit and high tech microengineering technology were developed to aid the progress of the project. Separate units were used and subsequently ‘virtually’ integrated. The use of process simulation tools together with an economic evaluation of the integrated process resulted in several recommendations for improving the competitiveness of the OCMOL process. A life cycle analysis performed during the project indicated that the carbon footprint was smaller compared to the conversion of natural gas to synthetic diesel via FT synthesis. Remaining challenges were identified, such as the limited ethylene yield of the OCM process and, correspondingly, the significant contribution of RM to the overall product formation in the process. Considerable recycle streams resulted in a large capital expenditure required for the separation section.

2.2. Oxidative Coupling of Methane – Lanthanum-Based Nanoparticles

As mentioned above, the activity of materials for OCM is closely related to the catalyst’s structural properties. Some preliminary work can be found in the literature regarding the effect of particle size in OCM. Farsi et al. (27) showed that Li/MgO nanoparticles had higher CH4 conversion and C2 yield than a conventional Li/MgO catalyst. Noon et al. (28) obtained high C2+ selectivities with lanthanum oxide-cerium oxide (La2O3-CeO2) nanofibres obtained by electrospinning. The shape of the nanoparticles was also shown to be important by Huang et al. (29), their study showed that La2O3 nanorods were more active and C2 selective at low temperatures than La2O3 nanoparticles. On the other hand, La-based materials have been extensively studied for OCM and they have been identified as some of the best catalysts for this reaction (30, 31).

The present work more particularly elaborates on the systematic study of the particle size effect of La-based nanoparticles for OCM which was the main focus of the catalyst development work in OCMOL carried out by Johnson Matthey. Catalyst development for OCM was aimed at allowing the development and understanding of two different preparation methods for La-based nanomaterials: FSP and microemulsion. The two methods were chosen because of their versatility when preparing nanomaterials and with the aim of obtaining La-based materials with different particle size. FSP allows the control of particle size and phase as a function of the conditions used. Similarly, the microemulsion technique has been used extensively to prepare oxides with different particle size and allows a finer control of the particle size (3234). La-based materials have been shown to be active for OCM (3540), particularly the variant containing 1% strontium/La2O3 (16, 41, 42). Hence, the latter material was chosen as one of the standard materials for benchmarking between the OCMOL partners. The preparation method of the La-based materials has been shown to influence the material properties and, hence, their ultimate performance. Choudhary et al. (36) found that the catalyst precursor and calcination conditions used to prepare La2O3 affected the surface properties, basicity, base strength distribution, activity and selectivity in the OCM. A comparison of the reactivity of phases was performed by Taylor et al. (43) showing that the starting phase influenced the activity and selectivity, despite La2O3 being the final phase following reaction, as the carbonates are not stable under OCM reaction conditions (44).

FSP is a flame aerosol technology for the production of nanoparticles where the precursor is a liquid with high combustion enthalpy (>50% of total energy of combustion), usually an organic solvent. The research group of Sotiris E. Pratsinis at ETH Zurich, Switzerland was the first to develop the technique (45). Since then many others have followed, leading to the production of a wide range of materials and equipment of varying type and complexity. Johnson Matthey has developed its own FSP facility which produces a range of nanopowders. Depending on the material, it has a capacity to produce up to 100 g h–1 of nanopowder. FSP produces nanopowders by spraying a liquid feed, metal precursor dissolved in an organic solvent, with an oxidising gas into a flame zone. The combustion of the spray produces nanomaterials with different properties that can be controlled at a high rate (46, 47). This can be achieved by modifying the process parameters and the feed composition.

During OCMOL the effect of process parameters such as oxygen dispersion and feed composition were investigated for the production of La-based nanoparticles. FSP was shown to be a versatile method that allowed tuning of its properties, not only the particle size but basicity and phase. The materials produced were tested for OCM and higher C2 yields were obtained with materials of higher basicity. A mixture of lanthanum oxycarbonate (La2O2CO3) and La2O3 exhibited better OCM performance than La2O3 only (25).

On the other hand, microemulsion has been extensively used to produce nanoparticles due to the ability of this technique to control the particle size (33, 48). Different types of microemulsion are known, such as water in oil and oil in water. The different systems lead to the formation of reverse micelles in the first case and micelles in the second. These mixtures of oil and water are naturally unstable but can, nevertheless, be stabilised by the addition of suitable surfactants in the right proportion. By positioning themselves at the oil-water interface, these surfactants decrease the interfacial energy and help establish a thermodynamically stable solution from the unstable oil and water mixture by creating very small stabilised droplets (<10 nm diameter) (49). In diluted systems these molecules are present as monomers, however when their concentration exceeds a certain threshold, the critical micelle concentration (CMC), they aggregate to form micelles. At intermediate concentrations, microemulsions with both aqueous and oily continuous domains can exist as three-dimensional (3D) interconnected sponge-like channels, also known as bicontinuous microemulsions.

3. Microemulsion

3.1. Experimental

A reverse micelle method modified from the method described by Chandradass et al. (50) to prepare lanthanum aluminate (LaAlO3) was used to prepare the La-based nanomaterials. The microemulsion was prepared by mixing 100 ml of cyclohexane and 40 ml of Igepal-520 under magnetic stirring. Once the desired synthesis temperature was achieved 5.6 ml of an aqueous lanthanum nitrate solution was added using a pump (24 ml min–1). Finally, 2.5 ml of the precipitating agent, ammonia (35%), was added dropwise after 1 h. When the base was added the mixture became white and it was left under constant stirring for 22 h. The final solid material was obtained by centrifugation for 30 min at 4000 rpm, the temperature during centrifugation was kept under 20°C. The sample was washed with ethanol and centrifuged (15 min at 4000 rpm) three times. The material was dried at room temperature. The effects of two synthesis variables were assessed: the synthesis temperature (7°C, 15°C, 25°C, 30°C, 40°C, 50°C and 60°C) and the water:surfactant (W:S) ratio (from 4 to 16). The addition rate of the reactants and the stirring speed were kept constant. A schematic of the procedure is shown in Figure 2. It was divided into three stages: (a) microemulsion, (b) dried material and (c) final powder. A summary of the results obtained for each of these stages is presented in this work.

Fig. 2.

Different stages of the microemulsion preparation investigated during the OCMOL project

Different stages of the microemulsion preparation investigated during the OCMOL project

The solid materials prepared by microemulsion were characterised by physisorption with subsequent fitting to the Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) equation, XRD and high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HR-TEM). Surface area analysis was performed using a Quantachrome AUTOSORB-1 apparatus using nitrogen as the adsorbate. Prior to analysis, samples were outgassed at 150°C under vacuum for approximately 24 h. XRD data were acquired with a Bruker AXS D8 Diffractometer using copper Kα radiation and collected from 10° to 130° 2θ with a step size of 0.02°. Ratios of the identified phases and their crystallite sizes were determined by Rietveld refinements using total pattern analysis solution (TOPAS) (51). The in situ XRD was performed in the same diffractometer in parallel beam mode with Anton Paar XRK 1000 sample chamber and the data collected from 10° to 80° 2θ with a step size of 0.036°. The investigated temperatures ranged from ambient to 900°C. Samples for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis were ground between two glass slides and dusted onto a holey carbon coated Cu TEM grid and a FEI Tecnai F20 transmission electron microscope was used to examine the samples at a 200 kV accelerating voltage. Dynamic light scattering (DLS) was measured using a Zetasizer Nano ZS from Malvern Panalytical.

OCM testing was performed with a high throughput reactor comprising eight quartz reactors (internal diameter = 4 mm, outside diameter = 8 mm). The reaction mixture consisted of CH4, O2 and N2. Contact time, defined as catalyst weight divided by the CH4 flow (W/FCH4), was of 2 kg s mol–1. CH4:O2 ratio = 2:1, 10% N2 (internal standard) and a temperature program of: 650°C, 750°C, 650°C, 850°C and 650°C were used to test 0.04 g catalyst (particle size: 250–355 μm). The ramp to the different temperatures was performed under N2 and the first measurements were taken after 2.5 h. The temperature was controlled with a thermocouple located in one of the reactors containing quartz wool, which was used as a blank reactor to assess the transformations due to gas phase reactions only. A Varian CP-4900 Micro-GC was used to analyse N2, CH4 and hydrocarbons containing up to nine carbon atoms. However, the discussion in the present work strongly focused on the C2 products as only traces of C3 were observed, in particular at high O2 conversions. The carbon balance typically amounted to about 90%.

3.2. Characterisation

The use of different synthesis temperatures during stage two had no effect on the phase obtained, LaNO3(OH)2·H2O (see Figure S1 in the Supplementary Information). This phase differs from the ones obtained using FSP, in which La2O3 and carbonates were formed. Therefore, the samples produced via microemulsion needed an extra thermal treatment to obtain the active phases (stage three). Although no change was observed with respect to the phase composition, the crystallinity of the samples was affected by the synthesis temperature as can be seen in Table I. The results are in accordance with the surface areas which decrease with the increase in synthesis temperature in the range from 25°C to 60°C. The temperature has been reported to exhibit an effect on the micelle formation, i.e., higher temperatures reduce the interfacial tension between the oil and water which enhances the diffusion of the water into the oil phase and increases the number of smaller sized droplets (52, 53). Therefore, when increasing the temperature, a decrease in particle size would be expected, however, the opposite effect was observed which can be attributed to the particles not being single crystals. The particles are constituted of multiple diffraction domains with different orientations and the temperature might help the growth of these domains (Figure 3).

Table I

Surface Area and Crystallite Size for the Fresh Samples (Stage Two) Prepared at Different Temperature of Synthesis

Catalyst name Temperature, °C Surface area, m2 g–1 Crystallite sizea, nm
ME-T7 7 10.0 38.0
ME-T15 15 10.0 21.0
ME-T25 25 31.5 13.0
ME-T30 30 40.4 15.0
ME-T40 40 30.5 19.3
ME-T50 50 21.6 24.2
ME-T60 60 10.1 31.5

aCrystallite size of lanthanum nitrate hydroxide hydrate

Fig. 3.

TEM for sample ME-T60

TEM for sample ME-T60

The samples produced by modifying the W:S ratio were also shown to be poorly crystalline materials when studied in stage two and also consisted of LaNO3(OH)2·H2O (see Figure S2 in the Supplementary Information). The crystallite size increased with W:S, as determined by XRD (Table II). The surface area measured agreed with this observation. This effect can be logically explained because, when higher amounts of water are used (higher W:S ratio), bigger micelles are created. Indeed the effect of the W:S ratio has been shown in previous reported work to be one of the most defining synthesis variables for the particle size in microemulsion (48, 54). An example of this effect is described by Lisiecki et al. (55). These authors investigated the effect of the W:S ratio on the preparation of colloidal copper particles which were achieved using sodium bis(2-ethylhexyl)sulfosuccinate (AOT) as a surfactant, isooctane or cyclohexane as the solvents and an aqueous solution of hydrazine to reduce the Cu. The increase in particle size when increasing W:S ratio could be observed for the two different solvents.

Table II

Surface Area and Crystallite Size for Fresh (Stage Two) Samples Prepared Using Different W:S Ratio

Catalyst name W:S ratio Surface area, m2 g–1 Crystallite sizea, nm
ME-W/S4 4 37.5 15.0
ME-W/S5 5 32.6 16.6
ME-W/S8 8 17.1 17.4
ME-W/S16 16 17.1 21.7

aCrystallite size of lanthanum nitrate hydroxide hydrate

The morphology of the materials obtained by microemulsion was very different from that obtained using FSP. The latter produced sphere like materials between 10–40 nm, while aggregates ranging from around 0.1 μm to 10 μm were observed for the samples prepared by microemulsion (Figure 4). These were shown to be flakes or needle like materials with different shapes which was confirmed by tilting the sample at different angles (Figure 5). This shape could be due to either aggregation after surfactant removal or it could be due to the colloidal nature of the synthesis mixture and the ability for these systems to form other shapes (56, 57).

Fig. 4.

TEM images for the samples prepared at different temperatures: (a) 7°C; (b) 15°C; (c) 25°C; (d) 30°C; (e) 40°C; (f) 50°C; (g) 60°C

TEM images for the samples prepared at different temperatures: (a) 7°C; (b) 15°C; (c) 25°C; (d) 30°C; (e) 40°C; (f) 50°C; (g) 60°C

Fig. 5.

Images of the sample ME-W/S4 being tilted to 60° with steps of 20°: (a) 0°; (b) 20°; (c) 40°; (d) 60°

Images of the sample ME-W/S4 being tilted to 60° with steps of 20°: (a) 0°; (b) 20°; (c) 40°; (d) 60°

To determine the origin of the flake or needle like morphology dynamic light scattering (DLS) analysis was performed on the microemulsions with and without the La precursor in the stage one at the W:S ratios used previously. The micelle size determined with DLS for the microemulsions without the La precursor in stage one followed the same trend observed previously for the materials obtained in stage two (Table II and Table III). A decrease of the W:S ratio resulted in an increase of micelle size. Unfortunately, the microemulsions containing the La precursor (stage one) could not be analysed with the Malvern Panalytical Zetasizer Nano ZS. This was due to the microemulsion becoming cloudy with the presence of the La precursor and not allowing the light to travel through the cuvette. The microemulsions were shown to be stable over time. Therefore, the flake or needle like morphology might be due to a non-spherical micelle shape. Although, the aggregation of spheres due to low stability of the nanoparticles once removed from the microemulsion cannot be eliminated.

Table III

Micelle Size Obtained with DLS for the Microemulsion Samples Without Precursor

W:S ratio Average micelle sizea, nm
4 2.277±0.111
5 3.687±0.188
8 4.791±0.428
16 7.199±0.916

aThe analysis was done after 22 h of stirring in all the samples except for sample ME-W/S5, which was stirred for 67 h. The effect of stirring time was also studied. Bigger average micelle size was observed for the samples stirred for longer time. However, this difference was not significant. (Average micelle size for the microemulsion with W:S = 4 after 9 days was 2.697 ± 0.0135 nm)

As already mentioned, the samples prepared using microemulsion needed an extra thermal treatment to obtain the active phase for OCM, La2O3 and carbonate. Therefore, the effect of the thermal treatment on these samples to transform them into stage three materials was investigated using in situ XRD on the samples ME-T25 and ME-T60 (Figure 6 and Figure 7) as they represent the extremes of the crystallite sizes obtained for these materials. In this analysis, the evolution of phase and crystallite size was monitored during thermal treatment under two different atmospheres, air and N2. The starting phase for both samples was different. While both contained LaNO3(OH)2H2O, ME-T60 also contained La2(OH)3. The order of appearance of the phases was the same for the two samples, i.e., La(OH)2NO3, unassigned phase, Type Ia La2O2CO3 and La2O3. The unassigned phase was determined to be constituted of a mixture of carbonates and nitrates as a loss of CO2 and NO was observed at 340°C using mass spectrometry-thermogravimetric analysis (MS-TGA). The temperature at which each of these phases appeared depended on the starting sample and atmosphere. Not only the transition temperature between phases was different between the two samples, ME-T25 and ME-T60, but also the evolution of the crystallite size was different. These results showed that the systems are complex and further experiments should be done to understand the effect of the thermal treatment.

Fig. 6.

In situ XRD analysis for the sample prepared at 25°C (T25)

In situ XRD analysis for the sample prepared at 25°C (T25)

Fig. 7.

In situ XRD analysis for the sample prepared at 60°C (T60)

In situ XRD analysis for the sample prepared at 60°C (T60)

3.3. Oxidative Coupling of Methane Kinetics Performance

To carry out OCM testing, the samples were treated at 700°C for 2 h under a N2 flow. Under these conditions Type Ia La2O2CO3 or mixtures of Type Ia La2O2CO3 and La2O3 were predicted to be the main phases and these are preferred as they have been shown to be beneficial for OCM activity (25). The XRD analysis for these materials after the thermal treatment can be seen in Figure 8 and Type Ia La2O2CO3 mixed with La(OH)3 or pure La(OH)3.

Fig. 8.

XRD patterns for the samples prepared at different ‘as synthesised’ temperatures and calcined under N2 for 2 h at 700°C

XRD patterns for the samples prepared at different ‘as synthesised’ temperatures and calcined under N2 for 2 h at 700°C

The OCM activity of these samples was evaluated at 650°C, 750°C and 850°C, see Figure 9. As expected, an increase in the CH4 conversion and ethylene:ethane ratio and a decrease in the C2 yield are observed with increasing temperature. The overall observed activity is comparable to that of the benchmark catalyst, i.e. 1% Sr/La2O3. The size differences observed between the samples prepared at different temperatures do not reflect on the activity. As already mentioned, morphology was also shown to play a role in the OCM activity. However, it appears not to be the determining factor for the materials investigated in the present work. They all exhibit a flake like structure while the samples prepared by FSP are spherical and no significant difference can be observed when comparing their activity, see Figure 9. Instead the phase could be playing an important role as the activity for the microemulsion samples is comparable to the activity obtained for the FSP materials where higher amounts of Type Ia La2O2CO3 and Type II La2O2CO3 were observed. Characterisation of the spent catalyst could not be performed due to the small amounts of catalyst used during testing. However, the phases present after the thermal treatment and before testing for some of the samples are La carbonates. For some others La(OH)3 is the only phase after thermal treatment, however this is expected to form carbonates by reacting with CO2, atmospheric or from the reaction. Therefore, again the high activity could be linked to the presence of La carbonates or to the capacity of the catalyst to be converted to La carbonate.

Fig. 9.

OCM results for the samples synthesised at different temperatures by microemulsion and then calcined at 700°C for 2 h under N2: (a) CH4 conversion; (b) O2 conversion; (c) C2 yield; (d) ethylene:ethane ratio. Also included for comparation the best sample prepared by FSP (25)

OCM results for the samples synthesised at different temperatures by microemulsion and then calcined at 700°C for 2 h under N2: (a) CH4 conversion; (b) O2 conversion; (c) C2 yield; (d) ethylene:ethane ratio. Also included for comparation the best sample prepared by FSP (25)

Studying the effect of particle size, phase and morphology independently on the OCM activity has been challenging. While gaining an understanding of the catalyst properties on the activity has the potential to achieve higher OCM activities, it is important to consider that the integration of OCM with other technologies could overcome the unsatisfactory results. Process integration that includes the OCM reaction could be the solution to achieve natural gas valorisation in an economically viable manner.

4. Conclusions

Synthesis of La-based nanomaterials using the microemulsion technique yielded flake like materials which contained nanocrystallites. The synthesis temperature has the most pronounced effect on the ultimate material properties. A minimum crystallite size was observed at 25°C, however this did not affect the final OCM activity. Other phenomena such as those occurring during the thermal treatment play an important role for the catalyst activity for these materials.

In situ XRD analysis demonstrated that the materials exhibit significant changes when submitted to thermal treatment to yield the final, catalytically active materials. The changes were difficult to control, rendering the microemulsion synthesis method a challenging one to produce La nanoparticles in a reproducible manner. Alternative techniques, such as FSP, seem much more promising in this respect. In terms of OCM activity, the presence of La carbonates in the materials used was crucial. This work has put in evidence the challenges encountered when trying to study the material properties, such as phase, particle size and morphology, independently from each other.

Optimisation of the OCM catalyst is a challenge and we believe the solution to achieve natural gas valorisation in an economically viable manner would be a process that integrates OCM. An example is the European project currently running, C123.


The work was undertaken within the context of the project ‘Oxidative Coupling of Methane followed by Oligomerization to Liquids (OCMOL)’. OCMOL is large scale collaborative project supported by the European Commission in the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (GA no228953). For further information see the OCMOL website.

Cristina Estruch Bosch would like to thank Eli Van de Perre and the analytical department at Johnson Matthey for their assistance during this work, in particular to Edd Bilbe and Hoi Johnson for the XRD work.

Additional Links

Carena Project LINK



OCMOL Project, Ghent University, Belgium LINK

Siluria Technologies LINK

‘Zetasizer Nano ZS’, Malvern Instruments Ltd, Malvern, UK LINK



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The Authors

Cristina Estruch Bosch has a Masters degree in Catalysis from the Rovira i Virgili University, Spain. She is currently finishing her PhD in chemical engineering at Ghent University, Belgium. Cristina has been working for Johnson Matthey since 2007 and has experience in catalyst development for a variety of heterogeneous reactions including methane activation.

Stephen Poulston has a PhD in chemistry from the University of Cambridge, UK and is a research scientist at Johnson Matthey, Sonning Common, UK where he has worked since 1998. Stephen has experience of a wide range of heterogeneous catalyst systems including hydrogenation and platinum group metal catalysis.

Paul Collier is a Research Fellow at Johnson Matthey, Sonning Common, UK. He is responsible for organising Johnson Matthey’s collaborations at the Harwell site, 25 km from the Johnson Matthey Technology Centre, which hosts the world class facilities such as the UK’s synchrotron (Diamond) and the ISIS neutron spallation source. He is interested in heterogeneous and homogeneous catalysis, metal organic frameworks (MOFs), platinum group metals, oxidation, synchrotron, neutron diffraction, neutron spectoscopy, lasers, zeolite catalysts, methane and alkanes.

Joris W. Thybaut is full professor in catalytic reaction engineering at the Laboratory for Chemical Technology at Ghent University since October 2014. He obtained his master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1998 at the same university, where he continued his PhD studies on single-event microkinetic (SEMK) modelling of hydrocracking and hydrogenation. In 2003 he went to the Institut des Recherches sur la Catalyse in Lyon, France, for postdoctoral research on high throughput experimentation, before being appointed in 2005 at Ghent University.

Guy B. Marin is professor in Chemical Reaction Engineering and founding member of the Laboratory for Chemical Technology (LCT) and the Center of Sustainable Chemistry (CSC) at Ghent University. He co-founded the spinoff AVGI in 2015. The investigation of chemical kinetics, aimed at the modelling and design of chemical processes and products all the way from molecular up to industrial scale, constitutes the core of his research. He co-authored two books, “Kinetics of Chemical Reactions: Decoding Complexity” with G. Yablonsky and D. Constales (Wiley-VCH, 2nd edition 2019) and “Advanced Data Analysis and Modelling in Chemical Engineering”, as well as more than 600 papers in high impact journals and is co-inventor in four filed patents. He is co-editor of the Chemical Engineering Journal and member of the editorial boards of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Current Opinion in Chemical Engineering and the Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering. He is member of several international scientific advisory boards and ’Master’ of 111 projects of the Chinese Government for overseas collaborations in his field.

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