The production of petrochemicals derived from crude oil, the synthesis of small molecules that act as drugs and have specific functions in our body or the removal of waste and toxic products from the environment. These chemical transformations (and countless others), with a huge value for society, have a thing in common: They are catalysed.
The word “catalysis” may be familiar with you because it helps to produce cleaner car exhaust. This is actually true, but it just one application among many. What is, in fact, a catalyst? A catalyst makes a chemical reaction (such as the manufacture of a drug) happen, go faster, in a more selective way and usually with less waste. A catalyst is a molecule synthesized by humans (often made of metals) or it can be natural occurring (enzymes). In catalytic process, a very small amount of this foreign material increases the velocity of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the course of the transformation. Catalysis is at the heart of chemistry as it provides very powerful tools for converting basic chemicals (primer materials) into useful products for society in a sustainable manner.
Nowadays, catalysis is ubiquitous in many industrial areas: in the petrochemical industry, where catalysts play a crucial role in the “cracking” process (the breaking up of large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller and more useful units). This industry produces a wide range of consumer products, including gasoline, cosmetics, fertilizers, detergents, synthetic fabrics, asphalt or plastics. Catalysis permits the transformation of raw materials into these products in an easier, faster and “greener” fashion. Also in the pharmaceutical industry, where catalysis strongly helps, for instance, to reduce the number of steps involved in the synthesis of medications, thus increasing the efficiency of the process and promoting financial viability for the manufacturer. On the other hand, catalytic chemistry is used in many different ways to treat hazardous materials released to the environment. When toxic substances contact the suitable catalyst they can be filtered out or converted into more “eco-friendly” materials. This is the case of vehicle exhausts: A catalytic converter, consisting of an active metal, promotes the conversion of the pollutants from the internal combustion engines into less toxic substances (carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen).
However, the grand challenge for catalysis in the 21st century will be energy production. The high fossil fuel costs, the need to increase the use of biomasses, the introduction of the use of more environment-friendly energy vectors (such as hydrogen fuel cells), the development of new ideas to combine chemical and electrical energy production (more preferably using waste and residues as raw materials) or the extension of the use of solar energy will push to speed up the transition towards more effective renewable energy technologies. And catalysis is the core technology to achieve these objectives. Catalysis is an enabling factor for the transition to a new smart-energy world.
During the past years there has been growing interest in the improvement of catalysts in order to increase process efﬁciency, reduce energy and produce cleaner products. In the next post we will discuss on the different ways to fulfil this aim.