Today’s industrial catalysts are relatively crude and imprecise. Nature’s catalysts are far better, but how they work is not well understood. Solving that puzzle would have profound impact on energy and environmental challenges.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

Sylvia T. Ceyer: Head of the Department of Chemistry, and John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry 

The production of catalysts is a $500 billion industry in the United States alone. But the economic shadow of catalysis is far larger, since catalysts play a critical role in the manufacture of virtually every fuel, all types of plastics, and many pharmaceuticals by spee- ding up chemical reactions or even enabling them to occur at all. Many of the industrial catalysts in use today involve precious metals, such as the platinum in your car’s catalytic converter that changes pollutants such as car- bon monoxide or oxides of nitrogen to more innocuous molecules.

But catalysis is also an area of scientific inquiry that is critical to energy and environmental challenges that loom large in coming decades. In fact, many of today’s industrial catalysts require very high temperatures and are relatively crude and imprecise compared to nature’s catalysts, such as the enzymes in our body that enable and guide virtually all the biochemical reactions that sustain life. Enzymes work at room temperature, they are very selective (they enable only one reaction), and they don’t involve scarce, expensive metals. Just how they do that is not really understood. So the challenge for basic research is first to figure out the mechanisms of catalytic reactions by studying them literally step by step and atom by atom, and then to develop methods of synthesizing new catalysts that are well-defined (like enzymes) on sub-nanometer scales. And to do that will require development of more powerful research tools than now exist—such as synchrotron-powered spectrometers, electron microscopes so advanced that they could see the dance of the molecules in a reaction of interest, and research facilities capable of viewing the dance under the temperatures and pressures of existing commercial catalytic processes. It will also require the development of new catalytic materials—we don’t want our transport systems to be dependent on pla- tinum, which comes largely from Russia and South Africa—and advanced computational chemistry resources.

Economically and environmentally important advances in catalysis require investments in new fundamental science and a many-years-long effort. But the potential payoff is such that governments which finance this research— Germany and China already are—will gain a critical economic edge.

Why should we care about this area of science? Consider just three examples where the right catalyst could have a profound impact:

  • Artificial photosynthesis. Plants use carbon dioxide from the air and sunlight to synthesize carbohydrates; if we could duplicate that reaction, then feeding the world would be a lot easier.
  • Converting water and sunlight into hydrogen. An efficient way to catalyze this reaction could fuel a hydrogen economy.
  • Converting carbon dioxide into fuels. This would not only mean an inexhaustible source of conventional carbon-based fuels, but by recycling carbon dioxide would ensure that we don’t worsen global warming.

These and a large number of less dramatic but economically and environmentally important advances in catalysis won’t happen anytime soon. They require not only investments in new
fundamental science and the research toolset described above, as well as a many-years-long effort beyond the ability of commercial entities to sustain. But the potential payoff—not just for energy and environmental concerns, but for all of chemistry—is such that governments will finance this research. Indeed, some—especially Germany and China—already are. And those that do will gain a critical economic edge.