Research in Engineering and Aviation

Teaching Sustainability Through Catalysis

July 2010

Author(s): Yablonsky, G., Fushimi, R., Gleaves, J.

3rd International Symposium for Engineering Education (ISEE), July 1-2, 2010, Cork, Ireland.


Catalysis is the essential chemical phenomenon that underlies all living systems, and is key to creating sustainable processes and a greener environment (Armor 1999, Centi 2008). Catalysts accelerate chemical reactions, and efficiently channel energy into building complex molecular structures. Catalyst’s ability to perform specific reactions with great precision through millions of cycles is the basis of sustainable processes. Thus the concepts of sustainability can be clearly illustrated using examples of natural and manmade catalytic processes.

Natural catalytic cycles, such as the photosynthetic production of carbohydrates, are made possible through enzymes. The efficient conversion of oil, gas, coal and biomass into fuels and chemicals is made possible by modern catalytic technology.

In this discussion, the catalytic cycle is presented to facilitate the discussion of sustainability. Catalysis can be used to address some of the key problems facing the 21st century; in particular the production of fuels and chemicals in absence of petroleum is discussed here as an example.

On the cutting-edge of catalysis research is the Temporal Analysis of Products (TAP) reactor system. The TAP technique is a unique tool for capturing kinetic features (e.g. rates of transformation and energetic properties) of the fundamental molecular transformations occurring on catalytic surfaces.

These experiments promote inquiry based learning where the outcome of one experiment will determine the conditions for setting up the next. This demonstration of the catalytic cycle in action will reinforce classroom learning of sustainable processes.