October 22, 2008

Catalyst Reactions Seen for First Time

U.S. scientists say they have, for the first time, witnessed nanoscale catalysts as they change during a reaction.

The researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said they observed catalysts restructuring themselves in response to different reactants. Until now, scientists have had to rely on snapshots of catalysts taken before and after a reaction, never during.

The researchers say their achievement could lead to more efficient catalysts.

"Now we can dream," said Gabor Somorjai, who conducted the research with Miquel Salmeron. "By watching catalysts change in real time, we can possibly design smart catalysts that optimally change as a reaction evolves."

Catalysts, which are substances that speed up chemical reactions, are essential to the production of many industrially important chemicals, the researchers said, noting catalysts also play a large role in environmental chemistry, such as exemplified by catalytic converters, which reduce toxic emissions from vehicle tailpipes.

"Smarter is the trend," said Salmeron. "The more we learn about how a catalyst adapts during a reaction, the better we can design efficient catalytic reactions."

The research was reported in the Oct. 9 online edition of Science Express.