Catalysis is indispensable for materials science. Current techniques use petroleum-based starting materials, however, meeting the demand for high-performance materials such as advanced polymers will require a new generation of catalysts optimized to handle renewable chemical feed stocks, which, unlike simple petroleum hydrocarbons, are often over-functionalized with chemical groups. The future also promises downsized chemical reactors located close to these feed stocks. This presents another opportunity to exploit the inherent advantages of catalysis and will require the design of a new type of non-traditional reactor10.
Pharmaceutical production, which currently generates more waste per kilogram than the petrochemical industry, shows unique potential for catalyst innovation. Drug synthesis normally involves multiple, diverse synthetic steps; until every transformation can be done catalytically, there remains significant potential for innovation.
In the future, catalysts must be able to activate the least-reactive molecules that one can imagine: new methods of nitrogen fixation, the breaking down of carbon dioxide, the splitting of water and the selective activation of hydrocarbon bonds represent some of the grand challenges awaiting researchers, with potentially enormous ramifications for society.
Catalysis presents a way to save energy, reduce waste and meet the sustainability challenges facing our planet, making its study more important now than ever. As a new century demands increasing economic and environmental innovation, it is safe to forecast that the field of catalysis will remain forever young — and will only grow in importance.
How small can an enzyme get without losing its excellent properties as a biocatalyst? This and related questions fall into the realm of ‘organocatalysis’. This emerging field of research, which currently faces exponential growth and promises to complement the established fields of organometallic catalysis, heterogeneous catalysis and biocatalysis, is being shaped by one of the departments at the Max Planck Institute of Coal Research (List, B. et al. Science 313, 1584, 2006).