The UCR Center for Catalysis aims to tackle new and novel interdisciplinary projects to address
the challenges faced by the field of chemical catalysis in the 21st century.
Importance of Catalysis
Chemical catalysis is quite prevalent in the chemical industry, and affects our everyday life in many ways. Over 90% of all chemical manufacturing is based or relies heavily on catalytic processes, and, by some estimates, catalysis contributes to approximately 35% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). Catalytic reactions are not only at the heart of the making of most chemicals and materials, including some of the polymers and composites found in so many modern products, but also play a central role in energy applications old and new (in oil refining, biofuel production, and fuel cells, to name a few), in pollution control (to limit the emission of noxious gases from automobiles and stationary sources, to remove CO and odors from indoor air, to clean groundwaters), in biological and medical applications (to make pharmaceuticals, in biosensors), and in food production (by aiding with the synthesis of fertilizers and pesticides, in oil hydrogenation, in other food processing).
Catalysis is a well-established field with a long and illustrious history; the first catalytic reactions were identified more than a century ago. Extensive knowledge is already available on how catalysis works, and significant research effort has been directed at developing better catalysts for many applications. Nevertheless, much still remains to be done in this field. Historically, catalysis has been understood as a way to accelerate chemical reactions, but in more recent times the issue of catalytic selectivity has become more prominent. Selectivity is required to improve reaction yields, to enhance the efficiency of feedstock utilization and simplify the overall manufacturing process, eliminating expensive product separation steps, and to minimize the generation of potentially polluting byproducts. Selective processes are particularly important in the manufacturing of specialty chemicals. In pharmaceutical and agrochemical uses, for instance, enantioselectivity to produce chiral compounds is often indispensable because of the unique handedness of the biochemistry of living systems. Then there is the issue of how to coordinate multiple functionalities in one single catalytic process, in order to carry out complex chemical conversions without the need of intermediate separation and purification steps.
Challenges in Catalysis
Selectivity and multistep catalytic coordination are more subtle and difficult issues to address than activity. Fortunately, novel nanotechnologies have been developed in recent years to synthesize complex solids with well-defined characteristics, and those have already found applications in catalysis. The ability to produce samples with specific sizes or shapes, or to grow complex solid nanostructures, can be exploited to fulfill specific requirements in catalysis in terms of selectivity, as identified by molecular-level investigations on the reaction mechanisms. This synergy between catalysis and nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but has already led to many exciting developments, and promises to revolutionize chemical manufacturing.