Everything you always wanted to know about catalysis – and more!
They are a part of our daily lives through their most widely known application – treating car exhaust – but beyond that, catalysts are everywhere in the chemical industry (and beyond), enabling reactions for all types of manufacturing processes. In fact, without catalysis, our own product portfolio wouldn’t be what it is.
The philosopher’s stone of chemists
Let’s begin with a little chemistry – this is the website of one of the world’s leading chemical companies after all. Put simply, a catalyst is an element that facilitates a chemical reaction between two or more other elements. “A catalyst doesn’t make an impossible reaction possible, but enables it to happen in realistic pressure and temperature conditions,” sums up Philippe Marion, the coordinator of Solvay’s catalysis network, a group gathering experts from Solvay’s Corporate & Global Business Unit (GBU) teams whose objective is to share best practices all throughout the Group.
Often - but not always - precious metals, catalysts are asked to catalyze the desired chemical reaction without affecting the other reactions happening simultaneously.
“A catalyst will increase the reactivity in your reaction, so you have to be careful it doesn’t affect the reactivity of other, undesired reactions as well, which can lead to product degradation,” adds Philippe, before summing up: “Catalysts are the philosopher’s stone of chemists.”
Needless to say, catalysts are a big deal. The global market for catalysts used by the chemical industry (including polymers) is estimated to about €5.5bn. “But to get a realistic estimate of the size of the concerned market, you have to take into account the fact that catalysts only represent a fraction of the price of the final products,” adds Philippe. “For any chemical product, the acceptable cost of the catalyst can be no higher than a few percent of the cost of the raw materials: that gives an idea of the total revenue generated by products manufactured using a catalyst” – dozens of billions of euros!
The chemistry for competitiveness
Of course, as a chemical company, Solvay relies heavily on catalytic processes. “We buy and use catalysts containing precious metals like platinum, palladium or base metal like copper, RaneyTM nickel, but also zeolites, acidic resins… and biocatalysts – enzymes – to manufacture the vast majority of our products,” explains Philippe. “In addition to enabling the desired chemical transformation, they’re also an essential tool to ensure our processes competitiveness.”
But Solvay is not just a big user of catalysts: the Group also works on the development of new breakthrough catalytic technologies by coupling theoretical modelization and experiments, in particular through its laboratory run jointly with French academic research body CNRS in Shanghai (https://www.solvay.com/en/innovation/open-innovation#Joint-laboratories), with some of the most renowned international experts on catalysis on its scientific board.
So for example …
Going back to concrete applications, what products are we talking about exactly? Catalysts enable the manufacturing of things as different as monomers for high performance materials such as polymers but also surfactants, solvents, aromas... Probably the most significant example in terms of volume is hydrogen peroxide: Solvay is the global leader for that product, and its production relies on a catalytic process. In total, about 90% of chemical intermediates – the materials that enable the company to manufacture the final products – are obtained through at least one catalytic process.
Catalysis for cleaner air
That being said, when it comes to catalysts, the image that comes to mind to most people is car exhaust purification. But in reality, environmental catalysts go way beyond catalytic converters for cars. They are used to reduce air pollution in heavy industrial applications such as incinerators, including by a company like Solvay.
Just like on a car’s exhaust pipe, catalysts on incinerators transform noxious nitrogen oxides into nitrogen (N2) – a harmless gas for the environment as it makes up 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere – in order to make their emissions compliant with environmental regulations. In the industrial world, this process is called “DeNOx” (the neutralization of NOX molecules).
This is just one of the applications that make catalysts “a 21st century technology”, as Philippe says. “They have an important role to play in today’s raw material transition, with a better use of raw materials such as natural gas, but also in the chemistry developed from renewable resources, for example in CO2 or biomass processing.”
Catalysts are also key enablers to produce more efficient and sustainable materials, from plastics to high performance chemicals, and for the design of industrial processes that consume less energy. Finally, they could also offer solution for recycling technologies and help increase the development of the circular economy. In other words, it’s high time to change our views on catalysts!