Green Chemistry Principle #9: Catalysis

By Alex Waked, Member-At-Large for the GCI

9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

In Video #9, Lilin and Jamy discuss the advantages of catalytic reagents over stoichiometric reagents.

In stoichiometric reactions, the reaction can often be very slow, may require significant energy input in the form of heat, or may produce unwanted byproducts that could be harmful to the environment or cost lots of money to dispose of. Most chemical processes employing catalysts are able to bypass these drawbacks.

A catalyst is a reagent that participates in a chemical reaction, yet remains unchanged after the reaction is complete. The way they typically work is by lowering the energy barrier of a given reaction by interacting with specific locations on the reactants, as demonstrated in Figure 1 below. The reactants are represented by the red and blue objects, and the catalyst by the green one. Without catalyst, the reactants cannot react with each another to form the desired product. However, once the catalyst interacts with them, the reactants become compatible and can subsequently react together. The desired product is released and the catalyst is regenerated to continue interacting with the remaining reactants to produce more product.

Principle 9 Figure 1 - catalysis

Figure 1. Graphic of a catalyst’s function in a catalytic reaction. The catalyst is green, and the reactants are red and blue.

In other words, a catalyst can be thought of as a key that can unlock specific keyholes, where a keyhole represents a particular chemical reaction. One common example of a catalytic reaction that is taught in introductory organic chemistry is the hydrogenation of ketones (Scheme 1, also discussed in the video). The stoichiometric reaction involves the addition of sodium borohydride, followed by addition of water. In this reaction, borane (BH3) and sodium hydroxide are (formally) generated as waste. By simply employing palladium on carbon as catalyst, the ketone can react directly with H2 to generate the same desired product without producing any waste.

Principle 9 Scheme 1 - catalysis example

Scheme 1. Stoichiometric vs. catalytic reduction of a ketone.

While catalytic reagents appear to play an impactful role in the development of greener processes, there are always a couple points on the flip side of the coin to consider. For instance, a reaction employing a catalyst may not necessarily be “green”, since the “greenness” of the catalyst itself should be considered as well (ie. Is the catalyst itself toxic? Is it environmentally benign?). In addition, the lifetime of a catalyst matters; a catalyst can in theory perform a reaction an infinite number of times, but in practice it loses its effectiveness after a certain period of time.

Nevertheless, when these points are considered and addressed, the impact of catalytic reagents on green processes cannot be ignored. The production of fine chemicals and the pharmaceutical industries are just a couple areas where this impact is seen.[1] By focusing innovative research around the principle of catalysis, together with the other principles of Green Chemistry, we are moving in the right direction by paving the way to new sustainable processes.

[1] Delidovich, I.; Palkovits, R. Green Chem. 2016, 18, 590-593.


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