Technical Applications


Catalysts are materials which speed up a chemical reaction without being consumed by it. In many cases, this speed-up makes a reaction commercially important, and the catalyst vital. The United States has historically led in the technologies of catalysis, which supports our strong chemical and petrochemical industries. In fact, much of the research in catalysis is funded by those industries and remains proprietary. Overall, the United States remains the world leader in petroleum catalysis; is among the world leaders in catalysis for commodity and specialty chemicals; and is improving in environmentally related catalysis.


An example of such criticality is the catalyst in a polymer electrolyte fuel cell. At the low temperature of that fuel cell, about 100[[exclamdown]]C, the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen that produces the power would proceed at such a slow rate as to be only a curiosity. Noble metal catalysts make the rate useful for a host of applications, perhaps including transportation. As our ability to design materials on the atomic level has grown, new possibilities seem promising, as for artificial zeolites. Very different catalysts are those created in biological systems, where they are the base for metabolism and many other functions. Here, there is a potential to create new drugs.


Catalysts are important to the near-term aims of the Partnership for the New Generation Vehicle. In particular, a NOx catalyst is important in enabling options like a lean- burn diesel. Catalysis can be an important step in removing key contaminants, both from power plant effluent and from process plants, contributing to efficient energy production and utilization. Catalysis is also important to the chemical and petroleum industries, where advances have created many new products and processes, from Kevlar at DuPont to the Monsanto process for acetic acid. The importance of catalysis should increase as our ability to analyze and to design catalysts improves.


Several European nations and Japan support research in catalysis generally, recognizing the importance of the area. This has produced important new discoveries in those nations. The most striking such recent development is the revolution in olefin polymerization, which promises widespread benefits or cost savings for most polymers. The new developments in metallocene catalysts were discovered in two German universities, and are now being aggressively developed in Europe, the United States, and Japan. In the United States, these compounds are being aggressively developed both by Dow Chemical Corporation and Exxon. While the United States is still the overall world leader in catalysis, and so was able to exploit this breakthrough quickly, the competition is getting stronger.