Everything you ever wanted to know about catalysts
And how catalysts can help enable a more sustainable future
Catalysts play an important role in creating virus-killing disinfectants, converters for cleaner air and healthier ingredients and food.
At Solvay, we also want to be catalysts... for a more sustainable world. And in some cases, the actual catalysts we create and use do just that!
Catalysts are elements that facilitate a chemical reaction between two or more elements. They are everywhere in the chemical industry and have been enabling reactions for all types of manufacturing processes for over 150 years.
What’s amazing about catalysts is how they allow for faster chemical reactions: molecules that could take weeks, months or even years to interact can react within seconds with a catalyst. “They work like a policeman directing traffic,” said Richard Thommeret, Solvay’s Innovation Communication Director. “They don't appear in the global chemical reaction scheme but they direct the molecules where they need to go in the fastest, most efficient way possible.”
90% of chemical products rely on a catalytic process at some point in their manufacturing process. Catalysts are the philosopher's stone of chemists.
Catalysts also reduce the amount of energy it takes to create a reaction. And because catalysts are able to select only the molecules you need, they also increase the yield of a reaction. That’s how a given reaction can have around a 95% yield with only around 5% waste.
Let’s have a look at a few concrete examples of how catalysts are used to create Solvay’s products, particularly the ones that make our daily lives more sustainable.
Catalysts for virus and bacteria-killing products
Catalysts enable a number of important virus and bacteria-killing products, such as surfactants, which can be found in numerous cleaning products. Solvay relies on Fentamine® brand, versatile and reactive intermediate, to produce those surfactants. This brand is based on fatty acids and fatty alcohols feedstock transformation by using high-efficiency catalysts.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Solvay released Actizone™ a blockbuster disinfectant that kills 99.9% of viruses and protects surfaces for 24 hours, which is much longer than any product on the market. Actizone™ contains surfactants, under the brand FENTACARE®, which is successfully made using catalysis.
Especially during the Covid crisis, hydrogen peroxide (H202) has also been in high demand to help kill viruses, germs and bacteria. Solvay is the global leader for H202, and its production relies on a very efficient catalytic process using supported precious metal catalysts.
H202 is the important catalytic technology for Solvay in terms of production - we produce 1.6 million tons and we’ve seen a significant increase in demand in the last ten years. Since the Covid crisis hit, Solvay has donated over 700,000 liters of hydrogen peroxide to help fight the spread of the virus.
Catalysts for cleaner cars
Electric and hydrogen vehicles are hitting the road in large numbers, but today, around 95% of vehicles still have combustion engines that emit substances such as CO, NOx, hydrocarbons and particulates which can be harmful to breathe.
The good news is that catalysts convert toxic pollutants produced during the combustion (an oxidation reaction) into something less harmful by catalyzing a reduction reaction. In fact, they can reduce more than 95% of noxious emissions.
How do they achieve optimal performance? That’s where Solvay’s chemistry comes into play. Solvay’s Optalys® is a catalytic solution, which is an active part of the catalyst that enables the reduction of the exhaust gas pollutants (CO, NOx, etc.) thanks to their ability to capture and release oxygen and nitrogen. Optalys® boosts the performance of catalytic converters, thus enabling the catalysts manufacturer and car constructor to achieve compliance with increasingly ambitious emission standards.
In fact, Optalys® won the Solar Impulse efficient solutions label for its role in mitigating climate change, improving air quality and fuel efficiency, while also supporting bio and e-fuels.
Catalysts for healthier ingredients
Consumers increasingly want natural ingredients and healthier products. To answer this demand for vanillin, Solvay offers Rhovanil® Natural CW, which is produced through bio-fermentation of the ferulic acid extracted from rice bran for instance. But how? Through catalysis of course!
Solvay converts the ferulic acid present in the rice bran extract oil, turning it into vanillin with the help of a natural enzymatic catalyst (a non-GMO microorganism), rather than a synthetic one. Enzymatic catalysts can be found everywhere in nature from the enzymes that help us digest starch by transforming it into sugars to the chlorophyll in trees that transform the water from the ground and the CO2 from the air into sugars and oxygen.
Enzymatic catalysts can take longer to produce a reaction in nature (vs synthetic ones), but its performance would increase through the right selection of microorganisms and right conditions, achieving a good performance (faster and higher yield) and still in a milder and much better impact to the environment, delivering a natural vanillin according to the most stringent regulations.