Technion scientist discovers key to unexplained phenomenon in catalysis

Catalysis is responsible for 95% of industrial chemical processes, and directly affects more than 1/3 of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).

 Prof. Charlotte Vogt (photo credit: TECHNION SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Prof. Charlotte Vogt
(photo credit: TECHNION SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Catalysis is the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction; “helping it” - achieved by means of a catalyst – a “starter." A phenomenon that has for a long time been observed, but remained unexplained is called "structure insensitivity," when the shape of catalysis appears to have absolutely no effect – no matter whether the particles are big or small, the reaction occurs at the same rate. Now, Prof. Charlotte Vogt from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry at the Technion has found the reason. The research was recently published in Nature Communications

Catalysis is responsible for 95% of industrial chemical processes and directly affects more than 1/3 of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). It can continue "helping" indefinitely, likened to a bossy matchmaker setting up couples. 

Prof. Vogt used advanced characterization methods, including particle accelerators and quick spectroscopy to discover that the reactions indeed only appear to be structure insensitive. The catalyst nanoparticle undergoes rapid restructuring. It changes its shape, and displays not the expected “flat surfaces”, but peaks and valleys, leaving only specific reactive sites exposed. The process is so fast, that without the novel technology, and smart experimental design, it could not have been observed.

Technion–Israel Institute of TechnologyWikimedia CommonsTechnion–Israel Institute of TechnologyWikimedia Commons

She noted the importance of understanding catalysis. 

“I believe the key to a greener, more sustainable future lies in better catalysts," Vogt, who immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands to receive her Ph.D., said.

"Imagine, for example, turning CO2 into useful compounds. It sounds like science fiction. The truth is, such a process is theoretically possible, but it is not yet energy efficient. Right now, it would create more pollution than it would save. If, however, we could lower the amount of energy required, or if we would be able to tune the catalyst to make specific products, if we could find catalysts that would make these things easier, suddenly it would become feasible. Remember, acid rain used to be a problem we talked about even two decades ago, and now we no longer do. It was solved, using catalysts.”