Wayne State researcher works to improve refining process for cleaner burning gas and use of North American oil sources

April 21, 2009

DETROIT- A Wayne State researcher is working to improve a step in the crude oil refining process which could result in gasoline that burns cleaner and may allow for North American crude oil to be more cleanly used for fuel.

 Stephanie Brock, Ph.D

Stephanie Brock, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, received $79,529 from the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry for a project for which she is a co-investigator. Along with the project's principal investigator Mark Bussell, Ph.D., of Western Washington University, Brock is working to modify the process in which sulfur is removed from crude oil - a vital step in turning oil into usable fuel.

The study will test the potential of metal phosphides as catalysts - substances that initiate a chemical process - with the goal of removing more sulfur from crude oil than is possible with current methods.

The process traditionally uses sulfide catalysts, which have been known to become "deactivated" over time, removing less and less sulfur from the crude oil until they stop completely. Brock said metal phosphides may be an ideal alternative. "What we'd like to have is a catalyst with a greater consistency and a longer lifetime," she said. "Metal phosphides are more resistant than conventional sulfides to losing their functionality. They also seem to have a higher rate of activity and can remove more sulfur overall."

If successful, this research could lead to gasoline that releases lower quantities of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, both toxic substances, and will enable the U.S. to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate for lower emissions for both gases.

Metal phosphides' high catalyst potential may also prove useful for developing a refining process rigorous enough and economically viable for use on North American crude oil sources, which have greater impurities than Middle Eastern sources and are more difficult to refine. "Sulfur is one of several impurities that are more abundant in North American oil sources than that of places like Saudi Arabia," Brock said. "If metal phosphide catalysts are shown to remove a larger amount of sulfur from a more impure source, we would be significantly closer to independence from foreign oil."

Although advancing technologies such as solar and hydrogen power are making headway as viable forms of energy, Brock's research could result in more immediate solutions to the country's most pressing energy issues. "I think it's understood that we're going to continue to need fossil fuels for transportation, at least in the short term," Brock said. "Because of this, it's very important that we develop solutions to problems of the current system - meeting environmental regulations, and addressing the energy security issues - while other alternatives are still being developed."

Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting, ranking in the top 50 in R & D expenditures of all public universities by the National Science Foundation. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world.