Catalysts are advanced materials that enable chemical transformations. It is estimated that more than 60% of chemical products and 90% of chemical processes are made possible by catalysis. The catalyst market size exceeds $25 billion and involves large industries supplying products and services critical to everyday living. Enzymes, which are nature’s catalysts, drive the biochemical processes in living organisms and anchor industrial biocatalysis. Catalysis is now expected to play a crucial role in transformational technologies designed to usher in a better and cleaner world. This is key area of interest for Pangaea Ventures and our portfolio companies are already leveraging unique catalytic processes to engineer and manufacture novel advanced materials.
Catalysts speed up chemical reactions. A chemical reaction that is feasible under the laws of thermodynamics may be too slow for the process to ever become commercially useful. Catalysts accelerate the reaction rate by lowering energy barriers and altering the intermediate steps of the reaction pathways. Catalysis also introduces a product selectivity benefit that improves reaction yields and economics. Catalysts are not used up in the process but could undergo physical changes that generally lower performance. Catalytic reactions are completed in a homogeneous phase (gas, solid, liquid) or with heterogeneous phases whereby the catalyst and reactants are in different phases.
Catalysts are engineered from a wide range of advanced materials. Chemical catalysis involves metals, compounds, simple and complex metal oxides, zeolites, acids, organometallics, and composite materials; biocatalysis makes use of enzymes and fermentation proceeds with microbes. Ceramics, nanocarbons and polymers are common support materials that anchor catalysts in heterogeneous reactions. Precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, provide very effective catalysis but high cost is a disadvantage. The key difference from standard materials, however, is that the catalysts are engineered with active sites that make the catalytic reactions happen. Large surface areas facilitate high activities that result in enhanced efficiencies leading to elevated turnover rates. Catalysts, however, need favorable conditions to prevent poisoning of the inorganic formulations or denaturing of enzymes but they can also be cleaned and recycled.
Catalysis is already making an impact on clean energy and green chemistry. You may have heard about the artificial leaf, solar fuels, artificial photosynthesis, electrofuels, photocatalysts and electrocatalysts. Imagine if we can generate hydrogen by splitting water instead of reforming fossil fuels! Significant efforts are underway to make this happen in an economically viable manner. Various low cost metal compounds-based formulations show early promise. Biomimetic approaches to design catalysts that simulate nature’s enzymes are also getting a lot of attention. Novel catalytic formulations with high activity at lower cost are being designed to push fuel cell technologies. Biofuels are already in the market and more innovative approaches, such as, enzyme cocktails and synergistic enzyme formulations are being investigated. Disruptive approaches involving microbial, enzymatic and inorganic catalyst formulations for gas (such as methane) to liquid conversion processes to chemicals and fuels are on the horizon. Both inorganic and enzymatic catalysis are powering biorefineries that convert biomass into platform and intermediate chemicals. Pangaea Ventures is evaluating a few emerging companies developing innovative catalytic approaches in these areas.
Catalysts make clean air possible. The catalytic converters situated underneath our cars help keep the air clean. Small amounts of precious metals sitting on ceramic substrates in the converter catalyze reactions that destroy carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides while reducing particulate matter. Some of Pangaea Ventures strategic limited partners have leadership positions in this industry. Selective catalytic reduction technologies are being implemented in both mobile transportation and power plants to minimize nitrogen oxide emissions. We are now looking to catalysis to convert carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into useful chemicals. Both earth abundant materials and microbial systems are being investigated to recycle carbon dioxide into short-chain olefins (ethylene, propylene), formic acid, methanol, methane, dimethylether, and syngas for hydrocarbon production.
Catalysis will continue to positively impact the future. The drive to expand alternative energy generation, manufacture chemicals from non-petroleum feedstocks and reduce environmental pollution requires radical innovative technologies. These pathways involve difficult, complex chemical processes and an expanding suite of advanced catalysts is addressing these challenges. These include nanostructured materials with very high surface areas, biomimetic strategies, artificial enzymes, genetically engineered microbes and enzymes, mixed catalyst and synergistic type formulations.