The What’s Up with Science? blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series matches technical explanations with relatable analogies to explain opportunities and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
Have you ever wanted something to happen, but there was some barrier getting in the way? Maybe you wanted to go on a glamorous vacation, but it was too expensive. Or you wanted to meet a celebrity but didn’t know how. In that moment, perhaps you thought about how useful it would be to know Genie from the movie Aladdin, since he specializes in turning dreams into reality. Genie grants wishes and, in doing so, catalyzes events that wouldn’t otherwise happen in his fictional world.
Believe it or not, scientists have channeled Genie’s ability to make things happen in the chemical world thanks to a field called catalysis. These scientists develop, understand, and assess ways to increase the rate of chemical reactions using catalysts.
A catalyst is any substance that lowers the amount of energy needed to kick-start a chemical reaction and isn’t consumed or destroyed in the process. It turns out that starting a reaction can be a major “barrier to entry” that prevents those reactions from happening. This can be a good thing (i.e., spontaneous combustion of the things around us would be problematic), but it can also make useful chemistry really hard to do. Thus, catalysts make possible many important chemical reactions that wouldn’t otherwise happen – just like Genie. In fact, a catalyst can be so powerful that the word itself appears throughout our culture – in literature, music, businesses, and beyond-to convey a transformative or innovative ability.
While catalysis can’t help you befriend a Genie of your own, it does facilitate many other – arguably more important – parts of your daily life. For example, catalytic processes are quintessential to the pharmaceutical industry, where they are used to make the active ingredients found in medicine. There’s also the catalytic converter in your car, which catalyzes a reaction to make car exhaust less toxic. Since the early 1900s, a famous catalytic process has been used to generate hundreds of millions of tons of ammonia each year for use in fertilizer.
Catalysis also affords interesting scientific opportunities that could eventually lead to additional economic opportunities. For instance, scientists are busy developing catalysts that can turn carbon dioxide – the waste product of all combustion processes – back into fuels, or even plastics and other useful products. Before joining the State Department, I was one of those scientists, and I was excited by the prospect of catalysts turning such waste products into economic opportunities. They turn trash into treasure.
In this case, catalysts are necessary because carbon dioxide is a very strong molecule, meaning it’s difficult to break its chemical bonds or add new ones to generate a different product. But catalysts can do just that, and carbon dioxide can now be turned into all sorts of marketable products, ranging from hydrocarbons (used in fuels) to oxalate (used to make plastics). Here you can read about a catalyst that transforms carbon dioxide into methanol, a feedstock used to make a variety of other chemicals.
There’s always room for improvement, though. Getting three wishes from Genie is great, but more wishes would be better, right? Similarly, scientists aim to improve catalysts by making them cheaper, more efficient, or longer lasting. In doing so, they unlock better ways to accomplish existing chemical reactions or find new applications altogether. Lately, scientists have made exciting strides in developing catalysts that break down plastic and remove salt or other substances from water.
Catalysis plays a pivotal role in innumerable industries around the world, which means it has important implications for supply chains and economic prosperity. Here at the State Department, the connected topics of economic growth, energy, and the environment comprise an entire family of bureaus that are deeply engaged in developing policies related to the global industries that depend on catalysis. Research in catalysis is also funded and conducted by various U.S. Government agencies. Taken together, these endeavors help ensure that the positive impact of catalysis will be felt far into the future.
Genie may be a fictional character, but his power to make possible the impossible has been – and continues to be – harnessed by scientists around the world. What have you done today with the help of catalysis?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Science and Technology Policy Adviser in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State (STAS) at the U.S. Department of State. She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.