Research Focus Catalysis


1) Some Catalysis Facts

  • A catalyst increases the rate of a chemical reaction by opening a new reaction path which has a lower energy barrier (activation barrier). The catalyst is not consumed but recycled during the reaction.
  • The term catalysis originates from the Greek word καταλειν, which means „to unite“. The Chinese symbol for catalyst is the same as for marriage broker.
  • Catalysis is used in the majority of chemical processes and was originally invented by nature. Enzymes - nature’s catalysts - form the backbone of all metabolic pathways in any form of life.
  • 35 nobel prizes have been awarded for catalysis related research, 10 just in this millennium (see: 2.) history of catalysis).
  • Estimated 80 - 90 % of all products of chemical industry are based on catalytic processes.
  • Estimated 25 % of the gross national product of industrialized countries are generated through the use of catalytic processes generating products with an estimated value of 1.2 - 6 trillion US $ per year.

Examples for impact on Economy, Energy, Resources and Environment
A) Economic and energy dimension: catalytic nitrogen fixation
The Haber-Bosch process uses an iron-based catalyst to produce ammonia (NH3) from nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2). This process:
  • consumes 1.5 % of total global energy demand. Non-catalytic versions would use 12 times (Birkeland-Eyde Process) or 6 times (Cyanamid Process) more energy. Hence, the Haber-Bosch process (in combination with catalytic steam reforming) saves up to 16 % of the global energy demand, which is close to the 18 % used for transportation (all cars, ships, airplanes and trains on the planet).
  • sustains 30 -60 % of the world population due to fertilizer produced from ammonia.
B) Environmental dimension: N2O removal
N2O, which is a by-product of several processes, e.g. of catalytic ammonia oxidation, is a 310 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Catalytic exhaust purification of ammonia oxidizing plants reduces the amount of N2O emitted into the atmosphere by roughly 98 %. World-wide utilization of this new technology would reduce the N2O output by 0.5 mio t/a, corresponding to the global warming potential of the CO2 produced by 50 mio. cars.
C) Impact on resources
Generally, decreased energy demand of processes reduces the amount of resources needed. However, catalysis also directly influences, which resources may be used. E.g. Crude oil needs to be converted into gasoline or olefins by the process of fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) before use. About 12 mio. barrels of crude oil are converted by this process into more valuable feedstock each day.

2) History of catalysis and enzymatic research

Important milestones Nobel laureates
Evolution of first organism from autocatalytic networks 2*109 a BC
First confirmed use of fermentations in food processing
Babylon region
6000 BC
First use of sulphuric acid as artificial catalyst
Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān al azdi
ca. 770
Platinum accelerates reactions with oxygen
Henry Davy
First chemical lighter based on activation of hydrogen on catalytic platinum-surface
Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner
First definition of catalysis
Jöns Jacob Berzelius
Current definition of catalysis as acceleration of reaction rates in presence of a non-consumed substance
Wilhelm Ostwald
Contact process for production of sulphuric acid
Catalytic oxidation of ammonia to nitric acid
Wilhelm Ostwald
1907 Eduard Buchner
Discovery of cell-free fermentation
Catalytic production of ammonia from the elements
Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch
1909 Wilhelm Ostwald
Fundamental investigations on catalysis
First systematic screening of thousands of catalysts
Alwin Mittasch
1912 Paul Sabatier
Catalytic hydrogenations of organic substances
1918 Fritz Haber
Catalyst for synthesis of ammonia
Catalytic conversion of syngas to hydrocarbon fuel
Franz Fischer, Hans Tropsch
1929 Arthur Harden, Hans von Euler-Cheplin
Fermentation of sugar by fermentative enzymes
1931 Carl Bosch, Friedrich Bergius
Development of catalytic high-pressure methods
1946 James B Sumner, John H. Northdrop, Wendel M. Stanley
Preparation of enzymes in pure form
Catalytic low-pressure polymerization of olefins
Karl Ziegler, Giulio Natta
1961 Melvin Calvin
Carbon dioxide assimilation in plants
1963 Karl Ziegler, Giulio Natta
Discoveries in the field of polymers
First commercial application of fuel cells
Gemini V, NASA
First asymmetric catalysts
William S. Knowles
1972 Christian B. Anifsen, Stanford Moore, William H. Stein
Work on ribonuclease
Catalyst for automotive exhaust purification
General Motors, Ford
1988 Johann Deisenhofer, Norbert Huber, Hartmut Michael
Three-dimensional structure of the photosynthetic reaction centre
1989 Sidney Altman, Thomas R. Cech
Discovery of catalytic properties of RNA
New polymers from metallocen catalysts
Dow, Exxon, Hoechst
Directed evolution utilizing the biotechnological tool-kit for optimization of enzymes used in asymmetric catalysis
Manfred Reetz
1997 Paul D. Boyer, John E. Walker, Jens C. Skou
Enzyme mechanism underlying ATP-synthesis
2001 William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, Karl B. Sharpless
development of homogenous chiral catalysts
2005 Yves Chauvin, Robert S. Grubbs, Richard R. Schrock
development of catalytic olefin metathesis
2007 Gerhard Ertl
Studies of chemical processes on solid (catalyst) surfaces
First effective non-noble metal catalyst for electrochemical water splitting
Daniel Nocera
2010 Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi, Akira Suzuki
palladium-catalyzed cross coupling reactions

3) Challenges in Catalysis Research

Catalysis is the fundamental technology to perform chemical reactions in a specific manner consuming the least possible amount of resources and energy. Hence, catalysis represents the basis for a modern industrialised society enabling efficient and responsible utilisation of energy, resources and environment.
No other technological principle combines economic and ecological values as closely as catalysis. In view of the enormous number of material transformations and the associated feedstock, energy, and waste problems, catalysis represents a scientific topic with enormous potential and highest priority.
Catalysis is essential not only for economic prosperity but also for the management of modern societies, which are highly dependent on a differentiated spectrum of materials. Fossil carbon sources serve as both, energy source and chemical raw materials. If their limited availability is taken into consideration, the dimension of catalysis’ influence on society, ecology and even political margins becomes evident.
Correspondingly, three major future challenges directly related to catalysis research have been identified:

1. Energy and resources:

In the near future, human energy demand will surpass current energy production capabilities. Since economy and society are highly depended on the diverse products derived from coal and crude oil, it is mandatory to develop alternative approaches. Hence, new catalysts are necessary not only to reduce energy demand of current processes but also to facilitate a feedstock shift to new resources. Natural gas may offer a temporary alternative if selective catalytic CH-activation can be realised. For the long-term future, however, I consider sustainable energy and raw materials from renewable resources will be the only possible solution. Technical advances in the production, storage, and conversion of energy will also be promoted by catalysis research, as illustrated already by fuel cell technology. Other examples include construction of tailored polymer materials from renewable precursors like polycarbonates from atmospheric CO2 or biodegradable polyesters from lactic acid, which can be produced from bacterial fermentation of sugars.

2. Environment:

Catalytic processes need to achieve higher efficiencies to reduce waste or CO2 production. Further, catalytic processes using alternative energy sources (e.g. light) to convert CO2 into valuable products will protect the environment due to reduction of green house effect as well as due to conservation of limited resources. Examples include catalytic degradation of waste-plastics into liquid hydrocarbon fuels or reduction of pollutants from manufacturing plants and combustion systems (e.g., motor vehicles, power stations) by use of catalytic purification of exhaust gases.

3. Health and ageing:

In 2006, 7.6 Mio people died from cancer, 3.9 Mio from respiratory diseases and 2.9 Mio from HIV. The ageing societies in the industrialised world in combination with the emergence of multi drug-resistant pathogens, development of new pharmacologically active substances will become a key-issue again. Production of new compounds has always been dependent on progress in catalysis research. Synthesis of pharmacologically active substances highly now challenges the selective catalysts versatility of existing catalysts. In particular generation of only one of two possible mirror images of a molecule using highly enatioselective catalysts will remain a focus of research. Discovery of new reactions and application of bio-catalysis will be a further driving force to broaden range of available substances