Homogeneous Catalysts

A homogeneous catalyst is present in the same phase as the reactants. It interacts with a reactant to form an intermediate substance, which then decomposes or reacts with another reactant in one or more steps to regenerate the original catalyst and form product.

Homogeneous catalysis in the Ozone Layer

As an important illustration of homogeneous catalysis, consider the earth’s ozone layer. Ozone in the upper atmosphere, which protects the earth from ultraviolet radiation, is formed when oxygen molecules absorb ultraviolet light and undergo the reaction:

$$3O_2(g)\;\underrightarrow{\; \; h\nu \; \; }\;2O_3(g)$$

Ozone is a relatively unstable molecule that decomposes to yield diatomic oxygen by the reverse of this equation. This decomposition reaction is consistent with the following two-step mechanism:



A number of substances can catalyze the decomposition of ozone. For example, the nitric oxide–catalyzed decomposition of ozone is believed to occur via the following three-step mechanism:




As required, the overall reaction is the same for both the two-step uncatalyzed mechanism and the three-step NO-catalyzed mechanism:


Notice that NO is a reactant in the first step of the mechanism and a product in the last step. This is another characteristic trait of a catalyst: Though it participates in the chemical reaction, it is not consumed by the reaction. Mario J. Molina

The 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina ([link]), and F. Sherwood Rowland “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”1 Molina, a Mexican citizen, carried out the majority of his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

(a) Mexican chemist Mario Molina (1943 –) shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his research on (b) the Antarctic ozone hole. (credit a: courtesy of Mario Molina; credit b: modification of work by NASA)

In 1974, Molina and Rowland published a paper in the journal Nature detailing the threat of chlorofluorocarbon gases to the stability of the ozone layer in earth’s upper atmosphere. The ozone layer protects earth from solar radiation by absorbing ultraviolet light. As chemical reactions deplete the amount of ozone in the upper atmosphere, a measurable “hole” forms above Antarctica, and an increase in the amount of solar ultraviolet radiation— strongly linked to the prevalence of skin cancers—reaches earth’s surface. The work of Molina and Rowland was instrumental in the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1987 that successfully began phasing out production of chemicals linked to ozone destruction.

Molina and Rowland demonstrated that chlorine atoms from human-made chemicals can catalyze ozone destruction in a process similar to that by which NO accelerates the depletion of ozone. Chlorine atoms are generated when chlorocarbons or chlorofluorocarbons—once widely used as refrigerants and propellants—are photochemically decomposed by ultraviolet light or react with hydroxyl radicals. A sample mechanism is shown here using methyl chloride:

$$CH_3Cl+OH⟶Cl+\text{other products}$$

Chlorine radicals break down ozone and are regenerated by the following catalytic cycle:



$$\text{overall Reaction: } O_3+O⟶2O_2$$

A single monatomic chlorine can break down thousands of ozone molecules. Luckily, the majority of atmospheric chlorine exists as the catalytically inactive forms Cl2 and ClONO2.

Since receiving his portion of the Nobel Prize, Molina has continued his work in atmospheric chemistry at MIT.

Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency

Enzymes in the human body act as catalysts for important chemical reactions in cellular metabolism. As such, a deficiency of a particular enzyme can translate to a life-threatening disease. G6PD (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) deficiency, a genetic condition that results in a shortage of the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, is the most common enzyme deficiency in humans. This enzyme, shown in [link], is the rate-limiting enzyme for the metabolic pathway that supplies NADPH to cells ([link]).

Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase is a rate-limiting enzyme for the metabolic pathway that supplies NADPH to cells.

A disruption in this pathway can lead to reduced glutathione in red blood cells; once all glutathione is consumed, enzymes and other proteins such as hemoglobin are susceptible to damage. For example, hemoglobin can be metabolized to bilirubin, which leads to jaundice, a condition that can become severe. People who suffer from G6PD deficiency must avoid certain foods and medicines containing chemicals that can trigger damage their glutathione-deficient red blood cells.

In the mechanism for the pentose phosphate pathway, G6PD catalyzes the reaction that regulates NADPH, a co-enzyme that regulates glutathione, an antioxidant that protects red blood cells and other cells from oxidative damage.

Enzyme Structure and Function

The study of enzymes is an important interconnection between biology and chemistry. Enzymes are usually proteins (polypeptides) that help to control the rate of chemical reactions between biologically important compounds, particularly those that are involved in cellular metabolism. Different classes of enzymes perform a variety of functions, as shown in [link].

oxidoreductasesredox reactions
transferasestransfer of functional groups
hydrolaseshydrolysis reactions
lyasesgroup elimination to form double bonds
ligasesbond formation with ATP hydrolysis

Enzyme molecules possess an active site, a part of the molecule with a shape that allows it to bond to a specific substrate (a reactant molecule), forming an enzyme-substrate complex as a reaction intermediate. There are two models that attempt to explain how this active site works. The most simplistic model is referred to as the lock-and-key hypothesis, which suggests that the molecular shapes of the active site and substrate are complementary, fitting together like a key in a lock. The induced fit hypothesis, on the other hand, suggests that the enzyme molecule is flexible and changes shape to accommodate a bond with the substrate. This is not to suggest that an enzyme’s active site is completely malleable, however. Both the lock-and-key model and the induced fit model account for the fact that enzymes can only bind with specific substrates, since in general a particular enzyme only catalyzes a particular reaction ([link]).

(a) According to the lock-and-key model, the shape of an enzyme’s active site is a perfect fit for the substrate. (b) According to the induced fit model, the active site is somewhat flexible, and can change shape in order to bond with the substrate.

The Royal Society of Chemistry provides an excellent introduction to enzymes for students and teachers.