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Giving catalysts a boost of their own: University of Utah scientists' work about to gain worldwide attention

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 10:55 p.m. MDT

University of Utah chemists Matt Sigman, right, and graduate student Kaid Harper have developed a method to design and test new catalysts, which are substances that speed chemical reactions and are crucial for producing energy, chemicals and industrial products. By using the new method, the chemists also made a discovery that will make it easier to design future catalysts.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you've used laundry detergent, taken medicines, used toiletries like lotions and shaving cream, even driven your car, chances are very high that all of those products were helped by the use of catalysts.

Catalysts are substances that speed up chemical reactions without being consumed in the reaction itself. In other words, they help give chemical reactions the zip needed to speed up the kind of reactions that give us life-saving drugs, motor oil and fuel, household cleaners and a whole array of chemicals we depend on daily.

Research into improving the creation of catalysts is about to get a significant boost itself, thanks to the work of University of Utah chemistry professor Matt Sigman and Ph.D. student Kaid Harper. The two scientists have created a new method for creating catalysts that promises to cut down the time and energy used in both cutting-edge chemical research and industrial chemical production.

In just a short time, less than two years, their work is catching the attention of the chemistry world. On Thursday, their work was published in the prestigious journal Science. Science is one of the most widely cited scientific journals in the world.

"This is superb work that is fundamental in explaining highly complex catalytic process," Scott Miller, chairman of Yale's department of chemistry, said. "It also lays groundwork for exploration."

Sigman said traditionally chemists have spent a lot of time painstakingly sorting through numerous substances to find the right catalyst for a given chemical reaction. This results in chemistry discoveries taking a lot longer.

"What (chemists) have done classically is trial and error. This is extremely time consuming and it doesn't necessarily lead to an outcome that's desirable," Sigman said.

Take a car's catalytic converter. Sigman said it took chemists numerous bouts of trial and error to discover that the precious metals platinum and palladium were the right catalysts to convert carbon monoxide into less harmful carbon dioxide.

The one thing scientists dislike is being forced to guess.

Sigman and Harper's new method cuts out a lot of guessing time. Harper said they combined data analysis and computer mathematics to create a system that finds the optimal size and electric properties for the right catalyst.

"You're saving yourself a lot of effort," Sigman said, adding that this method was made possible by advances in computer technology.

Their work has been funded by a grant through the National Science Foundation.

"It opens our eyes to how to design new catalysts that we wouldn't necessarily think about designing for a broad range of reactions," Sigman said. "We're pretty excited."

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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