• Tomorrow: A new, homogeneous catalyst to make methanol may be commercialized following preliminary work at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The above examples deal with materials for health, clothing, consumer products, fuels, and protection of the environment, but all have a common feature: they rely on chemical or biochemical catalysts. What are catalysts? What is catalysis, this growing field of science and technology that holds the keys to better products and processes, and continues to have such a strong impact on our economy and quality of life?


The word ''catalyst'' is often used in everyday conversation: it is said, for instance, that a person is a catalyst, meaning a go-between who facilitates a transaction but withdraws when the transaction is ended. Similarly, a catalyst is, in principle, found intact at the end of a chemical reaction, ready to be engaged in the same reaction again and again. What the catalyst


Fifty years ago, between July 10 and October 31, 1940, Royal Air Force fighter pilots defeated the Luftwaffe in a heroic air battle over Britain. The British lost 915 planes versus 1733 for the Germans. The impact of the British victory was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons when he said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

In the Chicago Tribune Magazine of July 15, 1990, Herman Pines reminds us of the critical role played by 100-octane fuel that provided British planes with 50% faster bursts of acceleration than were available to them during the May 1940 French campaign fought with 87-octane fuel. With the same planes but new fuel, British pilots were able to outclimb and outmaneuver the enemy.

The new fuels that contributed to victory came just in time from the United States, as a result of discovery and development by Universal Oil Products (now UOP Inc.) of sulfuric acid-catalyzed gasoline alkylation. Vladimir Ipatieff, Herman Pines, and Herman S. Bloch played key roles in this work.

Since 1940, hydrofluoric acid has, in part, replaced sulfuric acid as the catalyst for gasoline alkylation. Today, in the battle for the environment, efforts are under way to replace hydrofluoric acid. Eventual success will be another achievement of researchers in catalysis.

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