Heterogeneous Catalysts

A heterogeneous catalyst is a catalyst that is present in a different phase (usually a solid) than the reactants. Such catalysts generally function by furnishing an active surface upon which a reaction can occur. Gas and liquid phase reactions catalyzed by heterogeneous catalysts occur on the surface of the catalyst rather than within the gas or liquid phase.

Heterogeneous catalysis typically involves the following processes:

  1. Adsorption of the reactant(s) onto the surface of the catalyst
  2. Activation of the adsorbed reactant(s)
  3. Reaction of the adsorbed reactant(s)
  4. Desorption of product(s) from the surface of the catalyst

The figure below illustrates the steps of a mechanism for the reaction of compounds containing a carbon–carbon double bond with hydrogen on a nickel catalyst. Nickel is the catalyst used in the hydrogenation of polyunsaturated fats and oils (which contain several carbon–carbon double bonds) to produce saturated fats and oils (which contain only carbon–carbon single bonds).

Mechanism for the Ni-catalyzed reaction   $C_2H_4+H_2⟶C_2H_6$. (a) Hydrogen is adsorbed on the surface, breaking the H–H bonds and forming Ni–H bonds. (b) Ethylene is adsorbed on the surface, breaking the C–C π-bond and forming Ni–C bonds. (c) Atoms diffuse across the surface and form new C–H bonds when they collide. (d) C2H6 molecules desorb from the Ni surface.

Many important chemical products are prepared via industrial processes that use heterogeneous catalysts, including ammonia, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and methanol. Heterogeneous catalysts are also used in the catalytic converters found on most gasoline-powered automobiles ([link]). Automobile Catalytic Converters

Scientists developed catalytic converters to reduce the amount of toxic emissions produced by burning gasoline in internal combustion engines. By utilizing a carefully selected blend of catalytically active metals, it is possible to effect complete combustion of all carbon-containing compounds to carbon dioxide while also reducing the output of nitrogen oxides. This is particularly impressive when we consider that one step involves adding more oxygen to the molecule and the other involves removing the oxygen, as in the figure below.

A catalytic converter allows for the combustion of all carbon-containing compounds to carbon dioxide, while at the same time reducing the output of nitrogen oxide and other pollutants in emissions from gasoline-burning engines.

Most modern, three-way catalytic converters possess a surface impregnated with a platinum-rhodium catalyst, which catalyzes the conversion of nitric oxide into dinitrogen and oxygen as well as the conversion of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons such as octane into carbon dioxide and water vapor:




In order to be as efficient as possible, most catalytic converters are preheated by an electric heater. This ensures that the metals in the catalyst are fully active even before the automobile exhaust is hot enough to maintain appropriate reaction temperatures.

The University of California at Davis’ “ChemWiki” provides a thorough explanation of how catalytic converters work.