(Lansing State Journal, June 9, 1993)
Question submitted by: Michael Epson
Many important chemical reactions require inputs of energy to proceed. If a catalyst is present less energy will be required to complete the reaction. Catalysts are substances that are mixed in with materials that are to be reacted, but they themselves do not, in the end, change chemically. They establish a local environment that promotes one or more chemical reactions to take place.
A catalyst is important in many industrial processes. Sulfuric acid, which is used to produce batteries, detergents, dyes, explosives, plastics, and many other produces, is commonly produced using a catalyst called vanadium oxide. Ammonia, a primary component of many fertilizers, could not be produced economically without the use of iron oxide which speed up the reaction.
The process of catalyst also affects the state of our global environment. Automobiles use catalytic converters to treat exhaust. The metals platinum and palladium facilitate the chemical conversion of noxious gases to more inert forms, greatly decreasing the environmental impact of combustion engines.
Probably the most important impact of catalyst is on life itself. All important biochemical reactions are catalyzed by molecules called enzymes. Most enzymes are proteins which catalyze specific reactions within cells. Some examples include polymerases, which synthesize DNS and RNA, peptidases, which digest protein, and ATP synthases, which produce energy for the many different cell activities.