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Dynamic Duo: Two catalysts build valuable carbon chains

By combining the power of two well-known reactions, chemists have devised a way to alter the length of carbon chains. The process might someday convert less-valuable carbon chains into a transportation fuel, the researchers say.

As oil supplies shrink, chemical processes that turn coal or biomass such as corn into liquid hydrocarbons will become more important, says chemist Maurice Brookhart of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of particular interest are linear alkanes, chains in which single bonds connect carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms fill out the molecules. Diesel engines, for example, run most efficiently on alkanes with 9 to 20 carbons per molecule.

The reaction that converts coal and biomass to alkanes, however, produces carbon chains of many lengths. Included in the mix are alkanes with four to seven carbons, lengths that can't be used as fuel, says Brookhart.

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