Hybrid Catalysts Developed
Before you stands a ten foot wall and you must get over it. You are alone, have no tools, and the wall is perfectly smooth, so unless you are quite tall or quite athletic, you will not be able to scale that wall. However, if you had a step or stairs you can climb on top of first, you could possibly climb over the wall with ease. That wall is analogous to a chemical reaction and those steps are like a catalyst, as their presence allows for the task to be accomplished with easier intermediate steps. In chemistry there are different families of catalysts with distinct properties, but researchers at Berkeley Lab have found a way to make a hybrid catalyst that combines the best of both families.
Homogeneous catalysts are in the same phase as the reacting chemicals, so if the chemicals are a liquid, so too is the catalyst. Heterogeneous catalysts are not the same phase, but are very recyclable and selective in what reaction they affect. The hybrid catalyst the researchers created uses nanoparticles of a heterogeneous catalyst, but has the nanoparticles held in a dense matrix, which enables it to do the job of a homogeneous catalyst. This gives the hybrid catalyst the selective nature of the heterogeneous catalyst but without they typical limitation of existing in a different phase than the reactants.
While creating a better catalyst is definitely important, this research could have much greater impacts by leading to even more advanced catalysts. The catalysts we currently use in our labs and industry are relatively simple compared to the enzymes Nature has developed, but this research may show us a way to change that.