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Atoms as catalysts

Gareth Parkinson (left) and Jakub Zdenek © Vienna University of Technology

This makes new, better catalysts possible. Catalysts are not only indispensable in the chemical industry. They also enable and accelerate chemical reactions and thus also make our cars more environmentally friendly. Researchers in Vienna have now made progress in the field of surface physics which could pave the way for a new generation of catalysts. They place individual catalyst atoms on a metal oxide surface with exactly the desired chemical behaviour.
With the help of a platinum catalyst, carbon monoxide in the car exhaust gases is converted into carbon dioxide. Only the outermost layer of metal atoms can play a role in this process. The gas can never reach the atoms inside the metal, according to Gareth Parkinson of the Institute of Applied Physics at the Vienna University of Technology. It therefore makes sense to construct the catalyst not as a single large block of metal, but in the form of fine granules enabling as many of the catalyst atoms as possible to be active. Many important catalyst materials (e.g. platinum, gold or palladium) are very expensive, which is reflected in the costs. That is why efforts have been made for years to turn the catalysts into finer and finer particles, but up until now no optimal method has been discovered.
"Single atom catalysis on surfaces is a new, extremely promising field of research," says Gareth Parkinson. "There have already been individual measurements with such catalysts, but so far success was usually the result of coincidence. Now, for the first time, we have full control over the atomic properties of the surface and can clearly prove this by means of images from the electron microscope".

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