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Pioneering thinker – then and now: Catalysis

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Pioneering thinker – then

Self-taught chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner discovered platinum catalysis and helped lay the foundations for the compilation of the periodic table of elements.

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Pioneering thinker – now

Ferdi Schüth likes to take on new challenges. His current research focuses on the chemical foundations for the energy of the future.

In 1823, the 43-year-old chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner was able to ignite an oxyhydrogen mixture using the catalytic effect of platinum sponge. For him, it was a “contact phenomenon,” today it is considered one of the most important discoveries in early catalytic chemistry. Platinum sponge can accelerate the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, and in doing so, it remains nearly unchanged in mass and chemical composition – this is one of the special properties of all catalysts. The reaction releases so much energy that a flame is instantly formed. Döbereiner, fascinated by this phenomenon, knew how to turn his discovery into a successful technology: He invented the platinum lighter. The lighter became a very sought-after item and the catalytic process behind it became a milestone and a driving force in chemistry.

Just one year after that, observing that oxyhydrogen can also be made to explode using mixtures of iridium and osmium, Döbereiner formulated the principle behind the mixed catalysts later used by the chemical industry. By that time, he had already been an associate professor of chemistry, pharmacy and technology for 14 years, a post he held thanks in part to gaining the support of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most important German writers and polymaths.

Döbereiner was self-taught, he had neither completed school nor attended university; his only education was an apprenticeship as a pharmacist. But this son of a coachman caught Goethe’s attention with his writings on chemical-practical phenomena. Goethe, who later became minister of cultural affairs, helped Döbereiner secure a position at the University of Jena. One year after his appointment, the faculty of arts awarded Döbereiner the title of Dr. phil. in recognition of his previously published works, which were said to “undeniably bear the hallmarks of genius and perfection.”

Grateful for the opportunities given to him, Döbereiner stayed in Jena until his death in 1849 despite receiving offers from other renowned universities. His enduring legacy is carved in stone as the inscription on Döbereiner’s grave says: “Advisor to Goethe, creator of the triadic system, discoverer of platinum catalysis.”

Shortly after New Year’s Eve 1971, 11-year-old Ferdi Schüth had already decided he wanted to be a chemist when he grew up. His enthusiasm was sparked by filling up used fireworks with gunpowder that had been mixed by his friends. The firecrackers didn’t fly, but they certainly made a big bang. One year later, he set up his new chemistry set in a corner of the familiy’s basement and continued his observations on what happens when substances are mixed together. “Just wanting to see if something works is still today my main motivation for successful research,” says Professor Dr. Schüth, who is now a scientist with many honors and prestigious posts to his name, including Vice President of the Max Planck Society, Director of the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung and winner of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Prize and the Leibniz prize, to name just a few.

This curiosity – along with the fact that he has a mind of his own – is the reason why Schüth was able to make his discovery that has so far had the greatest impact: high throughput technology in catalysis (see box). In 1996, he participated in a scientific colloquium on how new and better catalysts could be developed faster. The model being considered was high throughput experimentation, as used by the pharmaceutical industry to speed up research on new active ingredients. However, among researchers doubts were quickly expressed as to whether this method could be implemented under the much more difficult conditions found in oil refineries and the production of basic chemicals. But the idea intrigued Schüth, at the time a professor at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, and he started jotting down his first ideas during the event. Back at his institute, he asked his doctoral students if any of them were interested in developing this idea further. After around a year of joint research, the first high throughput reactor started up. In 1999, the company hte was founded to market the process. “A scientific challenge thus led to the birth of a new technology,” says Schüth.

One of the questions the chemist is working on these days is how catalysts can be custom-made right down to the atomic level. He is also interested in new energy sources, such as hydrogen and fuels made from wood waste, and their storage and catalytic conversion – in other words, the chemical foundations for the energy of the future. And Schüth is still always up for a challenge or some pioneering thinking.

Catalysis: Molecular helper and driving force in chemistry

A catalyst is basically a kind of matchmaker. In fact, one of the two Chinese characters that make up the word 'catalyst’ is the same as the one for ‘marriage broker.’ In a test tube, a catalyst grabs the desired reaction partners, dissolves their old bonds and quickly brings together the right partners to make a new chemical compound. It speeds up reactions without being consumed itself – although it can start to show signs of age at some point.

At the same time, a catalyst also saves energy. For all these reasons, catalysts are an important tool in chemistry, where they are now used in more than 90% of all chemical production processes. The production of many everyday items – including medication, fertilizer, dyes and plastics – would not be possible without this key technology.

hte GmbH: Turbo testing for chemical accelerators

With the process jointly developed by Professor Dr. Ferdi Schüth and researchers from the company hte in Heidelberg, Germany, the search for new and more effective catalysts can now be carried out up to 100 times faster than was possible just a few years ago. The company’s name, hte, is an acronym for this process: “high throughput experimentation.” This method, which is based on a parallel and automated approach, enables the Heidelberg researchers to conduct simultaneous chemical testing of numerous catalysts.

Currently, hte operates more than 50 different reactor systems, ranging from catalyst screening equipment to large-scale test plants for process optimization. The company, which has been a wholly owned subsidiary of BASF SE since 2012, now has around 270 employees. 

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