Study Chemistry and Catalysis

With many diverse and stimulating areas to choose from why study a course in catalysis? Well, catalysis is a technology that is highly relevant and necessary for solving many of the challenging problems that are becoming increasingly important in our modern world.

Study Chemistry and Catalysis

What is catalysis?

The phenomenon of catalysis is basically the ability to increase the rate of a chemical reaction, or more specifically the rate at which equilibrium is attained. This is achieved by employing a catalyst, and therefore compared to the uncatalysed reaction milder operating conditions can be used. The catalyst is not consumed during the chemical reaction, and therefore it is a species that effects change. Catalysts can be divided into two classes; homogeneous catalysts are in the same phase as the reactants, e.g. both are in the liquid phase, while heterogeneous catalysts are in a different phase from the reactants, with most commonly catalysts being solid with gas and liquid reactants. The use of a catalyst also often imparts a degree of selectivity to one or more reaction products, when compared to the uncatalysed reaction. This is an important concept in catalysis, and along with the ability to increase the rate of reaction, both can be manipulated by selection and modification of the catalyst. In conclusion, the use of a catalyst leads to a process that is more energy efficient, uses feedstocks more efficiently, as undesired products are minimised, and pollution is reduced. Hence, catalysis has a crucial role for efficient utilisation of our limited resources in an environmentally responsible manner.

Why is catalysis important?

The value of catalysis, in both impact on quality of life and economic terms, cannot be under estimated. Catalysis underpins many industries; none more so than the chemical industry, as over 90% of chemicals produced rely, to some extent, on the use of a catalyst. The worldwide market for catalysts is large and is growing continually. Current estimates place the value of the catalyst market at >20 billion USD, which is remarkable as it has been estimated that for every 1USD spent on a catalyst it can generate up to 1000 USD worth of product. Four of the world’s most successful industrial sectors are petroleum, chemicals production, energy generation and food production, and all of these industries rely heavily on catalysis, with their worldwide GNP accounting for at least 10 trillion USD. The importance of catalysis is mirrored across many sectors and estimates suggest that catalysis contributes to >35% of the world’s GDP. Against this background, it is clear that catalysis is an important key enabling technology that supports our economies.

How are catalysts used?

The applications of catalysis are numerous, and impact heavily on our daily lives. Just some specific important examples are outlined below. The process of fluidised catalytic cracking (FCC) is the heart of the modern oil refinery and uses a catalyst to convert crude oil to lower boiling fractions that can be used as gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel and fuel oil, as well as a wide range of chemical feedstocks, which can be transformed further using a host of other catalytic processes to produce many essential chemicals for a wide variety of applications. Catalysts are also used for protection of the environment, and many will be familiar with the catalytic converter, which is now fitted as standard to many vehicles around the world, reducing emissions of deleterious carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. They also find applications for treatment of industrial effluents and they are instrumental in abating the discharge of harmful species to the biosphere. It would be difficult to imagine life without modern synthetic polymers, as they are used for diverse applications including paints, adhesives, packing, textiles/fibres, electronic and biomedical devices. All of these materials depend on catalysis for their production. The breadth of chemicals produced using catalytic processes are vast, but may be the most significant are pharmaceuticals, and here the role of catalysis is becoming increasingly more important. Finally, catalysis is implicit in life itself, as enzymes (natural catalysts) within our bodies, and other living organisms, are critical for controlling many biochemical reactions. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that catalysis impacts on the daily lives of everyone on the planet, and it is difficult to imagine living without many of its benefits.

Catalysis is important now; and it is destined to become even more so as we face some of the grand challenges for humanity. For example, energy requirements for the future needs to be addressed and catalysis will play a pivotal role for the generation of clean fuels, like hydrogen, and energy production using highly efficient fuel cells. Catalytic technology will also be central for implementation of more efficient and greener manufacturing processes. It will also be crucial for initiating new sustainable manufacturing processes by utilising alternative feedstocks, such as non-edible biomass. Catalysis is a multidisciplinary field and contains engineers and scientists from chemistry, materials science, physics, biology and biochemistry. It provides the opportunity to work on fundamental problems, the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to G. Ertl for his work on heterogeneous catalysis, as well as important applied aspects. So if you are interested in working in a discipline that is challenging, diverse, fast-moving and dynamic, and vital for sustaining and improving the quality of life for people around the world then maybe studying a course in catalysis is for you? Who knows you may invent a catalyst for efficiently splitting water to hydrogen and oxygen under benign conditions, and thus solve all our energy needs for the future?
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