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21 November 2006

Catalysis Essential for Life

Opening of the University of Heidelberg's and BASF AG's joint research lab "CaRLa" — Scientists from universities and industry on the significance of catalytic processes in the world around us

"Never has research transfer been both so hands-on and so far-reaching as in this project." These were the words spoken by Baden-Württemberg's minister-president Günther Oettinger at the opening of the University of Heidelberg's and BASF AG's joint research lab "CaRLa". For traditionally structured universities technology transfer between higher education and industry still poses problems, as Heidelberg's Rector Professor Peter Hommelhoff pointed out on the same occasion. This being the case, it may well be that catalysis holds out particularly good prospects for the advancement of technology transfer. After all, the term "catalysis" refers to the ability of a given substance to ensure that two other substances can react with one another. But the energy required for the purpose is a great deal lower than is otherwise the case.

Catalytic processes are part and parcel of the world around us. "About 80 percent of all chemical products are fashioned with the aid of catalytic reactions," explained Dr. Stefan Marcinowski, member of the BASF board of directors. One example is ammonia, a crucial factor in the production of the fertilisers that guarantee adequate nutrition for a large portion of the world's population. Industrial ammonia production was, incidentally, the fruit of an early joint venture involving the University of Heidelberg and BASF. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were both awarded the Nobel Prize for the project, in 1918 and 1931 respectively.

In his talk on "The Mirror-Image World", Professor Karl Anker Jørgensen of the University of Aarhus (Denmark) explained how catalysis influences our lives right down to the smallest detail. In fact, he said, life itself would be unthinkable without catalysis. As an example he discussed so-called chiral molecules, which, though chemically identical, are non-superimposable on their mirror image and thus comparable to the right and left human hand or two screws with a left-hand and a right-hand thread.

Sometimes we can even taste or smell the difference between these molecules, though they are only distinguished by their spatial structure. One instance is carvon, the aromatic substance in mint. In its mirror-image form it smells more like cumin. Another example is limonen, which smells of lemons in one form and of oranges in the other.

Distinctions in the perception of chiral substances are a function of our sensory system, which contains receptors to which the molecule can only dock on if it has the right "fit", much as two people can hardly shake hands if one of them extends the right hand and the other the left. These receptors then transmit a signal to the cerebrum, which reads it either as "lemon" or "orange".

In many cases, life gives preference to only one of these chiral molecule pairs. Louis Pasteur discovered that micro-organisms can only feed on the natural form of tartaric acid gained by fermentation. They shun the artificial, mirror-image form of the acid. In the field of medicine chiral molecules are also important, one example being the curative agent warfarin used to thin the blood in the prevention of thromboses or embolisms. Here again only one of the forms is effective.

Then the focus moved to industrial research, represented by Dr. Howard Turner, vice-president of catalysis research at Symyx Technologies Inc. His topic was the development of new catalysts. "The discovery of new catalysts is an important but rare process," he emphasised, illustrating the statement with reference to the development of a catalyst for the production of a polyolefin. 110 million tonnes of polyolefins are manufactured annually all over the world, the best-known examples being polyethylene and polypropylene. Catalysts are indispensable for the production of polyolefins, with temperature constancy playing an essential role in the development of a new catalyst for the production of a so-called isotactic form of polypropylene. After an initial narrowing-down phase, the 2,000 remaining substances had to be tested individually, each of them undergoing 144 experiments for the purpose. Despite the use of synthesis and analysis automats and high-throughput procedures, the whole process still took 18 months and involved a large number of staff. Thus Dr. Turner provided some insights into the work awaiting the 12 post-doctoral researchers at the joint research lab run by the University of Heidelberg and BASF. The scientific directors of the lab are Dr. Christoph Jäkel (BASF) and Professor Peter Hofmann (University of Heidelberg).

Stefan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to:
Prof. Dr. Peter Hofmann
Institute of Organic Chemistry
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 270
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548502

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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