john simpson

In a toxic spill, scientist sees the right mix for catalysts for fuel

Blog Post created by john simpson on Nov 1, 2010

Taken from Maclean’s

“Out of the  red”



The Danube River  is famously blue, but after a recent toxic waste spill in Hungary, parts of it were flooded  with a sickly red slurry. On Oct. 4, a reservoir wall had collapsed at an  alumina plant near the village of Kolontar, releasing over 750 million  litres of red mud—a byproduct of turning bauxite to alumina, which is needed for  aluminum production. The disaster forced hundreds from their homes and left nine  dead. The red mud was waist-deep in some places, locals reported; one witness  said it smelled like blood. A chemical soup of heavy metals and minerals  (including iron oxide, hence its colour), red mud is highly corrosive; workers  in Hungary measured the pH level and  found that, in some places, it was as caustic as bleach. We end up creating 63  million tonnes of red mud each year worldwide, but we still don’t know what to  do with it: red mud is typically stored in reservoirs, dried out and buried, but  it’s so chemically stable it won’t really break down. Marcel Schlaf, a chemistry  professor at the University of Guelph, has a better idea. Red mud, he  believes, could help transform bio oil derived from plant waste into fuel… About  two years ago, Schlaf was teaching an undergraduate class about red mud, he  says, when “a light went off.” He looked harder at the mud’s composition, and  realized it might contain the right mix of metals to catalyze chemical reactions  and upgrade bio oil, which he acquired from Berruti’s lab. (His findings were  published in the journal Energy &  Fuels earlier this year.)