Spiers Memorial Lecture: Understanding reaction mechanisms in heterogeneously catalysed reactions
Heterogeneous catalysis lies at the heart of the chemical and fuel manufacturing industries and hence is a cornerstone of many economies. Many of the commercially operated heterogeneous catalysts have remained basically unchanged for decades, undergoing small but important optimisation of their formulations. Yet we all acknowledge that there is a continuous drive towards improved catalysts or designing new ones. At the heart of these studies has been the need to gain an improved understanding of the reaction mechanism for these important reactions since this can unlock new ways to improve catalyst design and, of course, the ultimate aim is to design catalysts based on the detailed understanding of the reaction mechanism. These advanced studies have been aided in the last decade by two key factors, namely: (a) access to advanced characterisation techniques based on synchrotron methods and aberration-corrected microscopy that can probe the nature of the active site, and (b) the application of high-level computational methods to understand how the reactants and products interact at the active site. In this paper this theme will be explored using two examples to bring out the complexity in gaining an understanding of a reaction mechanism. Using the zeolite H-ZSM-5 as an example of a single site catalyst, the mechanism of the conversion of methanol to the first hydrocarbon carbon–carbon bond will be discussed. In this section the use of model reactants and reaction probes will be used to try to differentiate between different mechanistic proposals. The second example explores the use of gold catalysts for CO oxidation and acetylene hydrochlorination. In both these examples the importance of advanced characterisation and theory will be highlighted.