Designing better catalysts using simple chemical concepts

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An international team of researchers, including Federico Calle-Vallejo of Leiden University’s Institute of Chemistry, have taken the atomic-scale design of catalysts to the next level. Their research contributes to the quest for a method to generate or store energy more efficiently. The report is published in Science on 8 October 2015.

Catalytic nanoparticles contain various sites: for instance, the sites C (centre of a hexagonal facet; nine neighbours are marked in yellow), E (edge between two hexagonal facets; seven neighbours in green) and K (kink, at the corner between three facets; six neighbours in purple). Atoms at edges and terraces are shown in light and dark blue respectively. Each site contributes differently to the total catalytic activity by virtue of its number of neighbours.

Why is catalysis important?

Catalysis is essential for modern society. A catalyst can be used to optimise the energy input or output of chemical reactions, and to create valuable new products. This simple idea has inspired people to transform the world.

For instance, the European chemical industry, which is largely based on catalytic processes, generates an annual trade surplus of € 50 billion (1). Apart from the major economic advantages, there is also the benefit of reducing environmental damage: catalysis-based devices, such as exhaust gas converters, help to mitigate the environmental impact of internal combustion engines. In addition, fuel cells are expected to make cars more powerful by simply combining hydrogen and oxygen. These cells are a clean alternative: they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bring an end to global dependence on fossil fuels.

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