What is a catalyst?
A catalyst is a material that causes a specific chemical reaction to take place faster. Like little matchmakers, catalysts bring molecules together in just the right position, enabling desired products to form—without unwanted waste. A catalyst can act like scissors, cutting molecules apart, or like glue, combining molecules together, or like both scissors and glue, breaking and making bonds to form new molecules.
What is catalysis?
The word catalysis describes the process of speeding up a reaction using a catalyst.
Why are catalysts so important?
When an ideal catalyst is used, the advantages include:
- faster reaction rates (smaller reactors and improved safety)
- fewer unwanted byproducts (less waste)
- more mild operating conditions (more energy efficient)
- all of these add up to lower costs too!
What is the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC)?
CEBC seeks to understand and design better catalysts for important chemical processes. Our goal is to both minimize environmental impact and enhance economic value (in other words, find greener and cheaper chemical processes). The target chemicals for our technologies find their way into plastics, fuels, pharmaceuticals, fibers, etc. We are developing technologies for converting a variety of feedstocks to valuable chemicals, including traditional petroleum-derived feedstocks and emerging feedstocks such as biomass (grasses, crops, agricultural waste), carbon dioxide and shale gas.
Catalysts are only part of the solution
Having the right catalyst is only part of the solution to making cleaner, safer, eco-friendly processes. Reaction engineering is also required. In other words, we must select the right reactor design and reaction medium for the catalyst to be most effective. After all, you have to bring the starting materials to the catalyst in the right proportions, and you have to get your products out efficiently. CEBC researchers are investigating the use of a variety of non-conventional reaction media, including carbon dioxide-expanded liquids, ionic liquids, and supercritical fluids. Mathematical simulations of different kinds of reactors are also done to guide the design of larger scale reactors.
Balancing People, Planet, Profits
CEBC research is guided by both economic and environmental impact assessments. Greener processes must also be cheaper to make it to the marketplace. The concept of "sustainability," as illustrated below, requires satisfying ecological and socio-economic criteria. Certainly we would like to reduce the environmental footprint of the chemical industry, but unless the new processes are also profitable, they are unlikely to be used. We make assessments at an early stage in the research to compare the new catalytic processes with existing ones to ensure the process is truly sustainable, and if not, to identify key hotspots for improvement.