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P. 22-27 /

A brief history of the science of catalysis – I:
from the early concepts to single-site heterogeneous catalysts


Politecnico di Torino, Department of Applied Science and Technology,
Corso Duca degli Abruzzi 24, I-10129, Turin, Italy


A brief history of heterogeneous catalysis is reported in this work, with a focus on key catalytic discoveries that have led to the development of the science of catalysis. However, this is not a comprehensive review on the history of catalysis and hence many concepts and discoveries have not been reported, for sake of brevity. The emerging picture is a survey of some ideas and innovations that have occurred in catalysis over the last few centuries, from early observations of alchemists to recent developments of molecular catalysis.


The Bible mentions fermentation for the production of bread and wine and most probably the first catalytic application was the production of ethanol by fermentation. Empirical investigations of the natural world have been described since classical antiquity and alchemy was practiced in several civilizations for many centuries (1, 2).
For a long time (~ 104 years), humanity thought that chemical changes took place for mysterious reasons, sometimes caused by acts of Gods. Catalysis has made great steps forward in the last two centuries, moving from being an empirical subject, strongly linked to mystic and divine ideas, to a Galilean-type Science (3-6).
Catalysis as a scientific discipline originated in the early part of the last century, defined as “the age of the molecularization of the sciences” (7). However, it took almost a century before the molecular basis of some catalytic processes, now widely applied at large scale, became understood (8). For instance, the production of ammonia according to the Haber-Bosch process was discovered early in the 20th century once the thermodynamics of this proce ...