The Role of Analytical Chemistry in the Energy Industry

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Energy keeps our society running. It powers our electronic devices, propels our vehicles, heats our houses, and fuels our factories.

The oil and chemicals industries have a key part to play in developing new products, technologies, and energy sources as society moves towards a greener future and low-carbon economy. The drive to produce more sustainable energy in challenging times is aided by advances in research, development, and technology, and helped by sophisticated analytical techniques.

This article outlines the research that will be presented at Pittcon regarding the energy sector and the advances being made in analytical chemistry.

While considering the range of techniques available, it will focus particularly on the petroleum sector. The petroleum industry faces several challenges, from fluctuating global supply and demand for oil to environmental pressures.

However, advances in analytical chemistry techniques are helping the industry face these challenges. They can be used to improve traditional processes and products and aid the development of alternative fuels.

This year’s Pittcon will hear how industry and analytical chemists work together to improve traditional processes and products and how advances in analytical chemistry are key to the development of new energy materials for the future.

The petroleum industry relies on multiple analytical tools. These range from nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to determine fractions of hydrocarbons in crude oil samples; to gas chromatography (GC) to monitor levels of oxygenates added to gasoline to meet environmental regulations.

GC is widely used in the industry and is very well covered at this year’s Pittcon. Speakers will discuss advances in technology such as pyrolysis combined with GC-mass spectrometry, GC vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy, and barrier discharge ionization detection for GC (GC-BID).

The focus of one symposium at Pittcon entitled ‘Frontiers in Gas Chromatography for the Petrochemical Laboratory - From Sampling to Detection’ will cover advances made in GC technology such as the advent of two-dimensional gas chromatography (GCxGC), which performs better than conventional GC-MS and can study multiple analytes in one analysis, saving instrument and sample preparation time.

As well as GC, Pittcon will also look at other important techniques. One of these is Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES), which uses the emission spectra of a sample to identify and quantify the elements present. Using ICP-OES to measure the elements in lubricating oils will be described in an upcoming Pittcon talk.

This year, Pittcon’s Wallace H. Coulter Lecture will discuss how industrial laboratories have played a major role in the innovation and commercialization of new technologies in energy and chemicals.

The speaker, Joseph B. Powell of Shell, will highlight advances such as enhanced oil recovery and chemical process developments with catalysts and advanced separations.

He will also discuss biofuels and new energies. Finally, he will emphasize the importance of the role of laboratories, and pilot and demonstration plants, in scaling up new technologies and that of training industrial researchers in experimentation and measurement as well as modeling.

In summary, innovations in the laboratories of petroleum and energy industries will spearhead advances in greener, more sustainable energy production and products. They will only be able to do this using the tools of analytical chemistry, which allows researchers to probe the chemical make-up and performance of materials.

Energy devices such as batteries, solar cells, and fuel cells are sophisticated and complex, often consisting of thin layers of highly engineered materials. Researchers need to be able to study the structure and composition of these materials to improve performance, extend life and reduce costs.

Sophisticated microscopy and spectroscopy tools allow researchers to investigate critical components, often while they are functioning within a device. A range of characterization techniques can be used to study the properties of energy materials.

These include x-ray diffraction (XRD), x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Looking to the future, another symposium titled’ Advanced Analytical Techniques in the Study of Energy Storage Materials’ will look in detail at advanced analytical techniques for studying energy storage materials, particularly lithium batteries.

An important aspect of this work is developing ‘operando’ techniques, which are used to investigate what happens while a battery is working. Speakers will discuss a wide range of techniques being used to aid R&D using examples in MRI, S/TEM and secondary ion mass spectrometry.

The focus is on improving the performance of batteries and developing alternatives to the traditional lithium-ion battery.

A host of presentations and exhibits at Pittcon will provide insight into the vital role analytical chemistry plays in the petroleum industry. Several market-leading providers of analytical equipment, products, and services tailored specifically to the industry will be available to discuss the latest additions to their capabilities.                           

Companies include Shimadzu, SilcoTek, Analytik Jena, and Shell Corporation.

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