Catalysts speed up chemical reactions with the aim of minimizing energy usage. They are critically important. Catalysts have also been developed through trial and error rather than through scientific principles.
Washington State University and University of Science and Technology of China scientists together have revealed an underlying mechanism of a catalytic reaction at the atomic level. They have used a combination of microscopy and spectroscopy to get real-world imagery and sophisticated theoretical calculations.
The research paper has been published in JACS. The research has improved fundamental understanding of reactions which will lead to more efficient industrial processes.
Scientists have studied the reactions of a chemical called biphenyl. This is a naturally occurring organic compound that is in coal and natural gas. Then the scientists compared two slightly different versions of the chemical. They also added two or four extra bromine atoms to the molecule. This has resulted in a dramatically different chemical reaction when they interacted with a simple silver surface.
In one place, a benzene-like compound with single bonds was the result. In another, the molecule resembled a honeycomb. This is similar to the beginning of a carbon graphene sheet. One reaction also needed higher temperatures and more energy to complete. This is an important concern for industries using catalytic reactions. The scientists were able to match atomic scale images of the reaction. They observed it with theoretical calculations.
WSU has become an affiliate member of the Centre for Rational Catalyst Synthesis. This is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded centre. The aim of this centre to better understand the fundamentals of making catalysts. NSF asked the universities to work with industrial partners to solve real-world problems.
For the industries, developing catalysts become very expensive. As it needs systematic and repeated testing. Scientists also face great difficulty in predicting end results.