It’s hard to overstate the value of catalysts
UNIVERSITY OF UTAH SCIENTISTS HAVE TAKEN A BIG STEP TOWARD THE RATIONAL DESIGN OF CATALYSTS, SOUGHT-AFTER MATERIALS THAT EXPEDITE CHEMICAL REACTIONS WITHOUT BEING CONSUMED.
Most of our food, medicine, fuel, plastics and synthetic fibers wouldn’t exist without catalysts, materials that open favorable pathways for chemical reactions to run forth. And yet chemists don’t fully understand how most catalysts work, and developing new catalysts often still depends on laborious trial-and-error.
But in a new study appearing in the journal Science, University of Utah chemists captured enough data on the crucial steps in a reaction to accurately predict the structures of the most efficient catalysts, those that would speed the process with the least amount of unwanted byproducts.
“We can pretty much predict the performance of any catalyst and substrate within this reaction space,” says senior author Matthew Sigman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah.
The new approach could help chemists design catalysts that are not just incrementally better, but entirely new, Sigman says. With a clearer understanding of the forces at play as molecules cling and shape-shift together, chemists might be able to take advantage of interactions now regarded as unimportant or impossible to control.
“Now we can go in and find out what is important to us, which is why things work,” says postdoctoral researcher Anat Milo, the study’s first author. “That is going to be absolutely essential for developing next-generation catalysts.” Milo and Sigman conducted the research with Andrew Neel and F. Dean Toste of the University of California at Berkeley.
High value targets
It’s hard to overstate the value of catalysts. By one estimate, over a third of global economic output depends on catalytic processes. Efforts to reduce the waste stream from chemical manufacturing hinge on the invention of better catalysts, as do renewable energy technologies such as fuel cells and artificial photosynthesis.
Read more: Better catalysts, made-to-order