Chemistry of Catalysis

What is a catalyst?

Page author; Thomas Squire

Catalysts are important tools in synthetic chemistry as they increase the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed themselves. It is estimated that 90% of all commercial chemicals are produced by methods that involve at least one catalytic step. Catalysts are also part of the drive by synthetic chemists to produce the “ideal” synthetic process; which is one that produces useful compounds in 100% yield with 100% selectivity in an economical/ energy-saving/ environmentally benign and sustainable way. 

To learn more about how a catalyst works and the different types of catalysts used see the chemBAM page  – what is a catalyst?

Enzymes and Co-factors

Catalysts are also found naturally in the form of enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that speed up specific reactions in cells. Enzymes are incredibly specific about what substrate (reactant) they can catalyse; even small changes in the reactant molecules can stop the enzyme from catalysing the reaction. Most enzyme reactions require additional non-protein molecules to make them work. These are known as co-factors; in the absence of the right cofactor, the enzyme won’t function.

To learn more about enzymes and co-factors see the chemBAM definition page – enzymes and co-factors.

Artificial Enzymes

coiled coil

Enzymes are efficient and highly selective natural catalysts which can catalyse reactions in aqueous conditions. Scientists/researchers, including those at the University of Birmingham, are trying to harness the benefits of enzymes by synthesising artificial enzymes to create next generation catalysts that are more efficient, but which can also catalyse reactions in aqueous conditions.  

To learn more about artificial enzymes see the chemBAM page – artificial enzymes.

Green Chemistry/designing sustainable synthesis

Catalysis by their very nature allow reactions to be carried out in less harsh conditions, for example lower temperature, therefore reducing the energy needed to be input into the system. Thus the addition of a suitable catalyst could be described as making a reaction “more green”. 

To learn more about green chemistry see the chemBAM page – designing sustainable synthesis.

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