By XiaoZhi Lim
In her 1794 book, An Essay on Combustion, Scottish chemist Elizabeth Fulhame noted a peculiar fact: substances such as coal and charcoal burned better when they were damp. After many experiments to understand why, she concluded that the water briefly split into hydrogen and oxygen, which interacted with the other compounds in a way that made the combustion go faster. Yet at the end, Fulhame wrote, the process “forms a new quantity of water equal to that decomposed”.
Many historians consider this to be the first scientific account of a catalyst: a material that speeds reactions by making or breaking chemical bonds, without being consumed. It was hardly the last: modern chemistry would be almost inconceivable without catalysts. “They not only make transformations accessible, but also direct them in new ways,” says Susannah Scott, a chemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s very powerful.”
Catalysts are used in some 90% of processes in the chemical industry, and are essential for the production of fuels, plastics, drugs and fertilizers. At least 15 Nobel prizes have been awarded for work on catalysis. And thousands of chemists around the world are continually improving the catalysts they have and striving to invent new ones.
Continue reading at Nature. Originally published on September 6, 2016.