Catalysis: How Chemical Reactions are Accelerated

Catalysis: How Chemical Reactions are Accelerated

Catalysis is the process of accelerating chemical reactions by reducing the activation energy required for the reaction to occur. Catalysts are substances that increase the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed themselves and as such, are essential components of many industrial and biological processes. This article takes a closer look at how catalysis works and how it is useful in various fields of science and engineering.

Types of Catalysis

There are three types of catalysis: homogeneous catalysis, heterogeneous catalysis, and enzymatic catalysis. Homogeneous catalysis occurs when the catalyst and reactants are in the same phase, usually as a solution; meanwhile, heterogeneous catalysis involves a catalyst in a different phase from the reactants, such as a solid catalyst in a liquid or gaseous reactant mixture. Finally, enzymatic catalysis is a special type of homogeneous catalysis, where the catalyst is a biological enzyme that increases the rate of biochemical reactions.

Homogeneous Catalysis

Homogeneous catalysis uses soluble catalysts, which can be more efficient than heterogeneous catalysts because of the large surface area of the catalyst available for interaction with the reactants. One example of homogeneous catalysis is the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, which requires platinum as a catalyst to proceed. The platinum forms ions and becomes a complex compound that facilitates the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Homogeneous catalysis is essential in many industrial-scale chemical reactions, including the production of plastics and fertilizers.

Heterogeneous Catalysis

Heterogeneous catalysts are found in a different phase from the reactants. They are usually solid and have a high surface area, which allows them to interact with large amounts of reactants. Platinum, palladium, and nickel are common metals used as heterogeneous catalysts. One example of heterogeneous catalysis is the catalytic converter in automobiles. The converter contains a honeycomb of ceramic material coated with platinum-palladium-copper, which helps reduce the amount of harmful pollutants that are released into the atmosphere during the combustion of fuel.

Enzymatic Catalysis

Enzymatic catalysis is a unique form of catalysis in which the catalyst is a biological enzyme. Enzymes are proteins that are produced by living cells and are essential for all biochemical reactions that occur in living organisms. Enzymatic catalysis is similar to homogeneous catalysis in that both reactions involve a soluble catalyst, but the enzyme is specific to the substrate it catalyzes. For example, the enzyme lactase is specific to the hydrolysis of lactose into glucose and galactose.

Applications of Catalysis

Catalysis has a wide range of applications in science and engineering. One of its most common applications is in the production of chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastics, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals. A good example is the Haber-Bosch process, which is used to produce ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen gases. The process involves the use of iron-based heterogeneous catalysts to convert nitrogen to ammonia. Without this process, worldwide food production would be severely limited by the lack of availability of the nitrogen necessary for plant growth.

Catalysis is also important in the petroleum industry. The refining of crude oil involves many catalyzed processes, including cracking, reforming, and hydrodesulphurization. Catalysis is used to help break down large hydrocarbon molecules into smaller ones, which can be used to make gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum products.

Catalysis is also essential in the field of renewable energy, specifically in the production of hydrogen fuel from water. The process involves the use of a catalyst to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Cobalt-based homogeneous catalysts have shown promise in this application, as they are highly efficient and do not contain precious metals like platinum.


In conclusion, catalysis is an essential process that has enabled countless chemical reactions to occur over the centuries. The field of catalysis has advanced significantly in recent years, with the development of new catalysts and techniques that have led to more efficient and sustainable chemical processes. With the continued expansion of the field, catalysis will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role in many aspects of modern life.