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“When I saw this I thought it was really a terrific contribution that could be very important,” says Richard Schrock, professor of chemistry at MIT, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005, with two other scientists, for discovering the type of catalyst used in the second step. Combining two catalysts this way “is pretty rare,” he says. “You can’t just throw any two things together and expect to get the results you anticipated.”

According to Robert Grubbs, professor of chemistry at Caltech, who shared the Nobel prize with Schrock, “The key is finding catalyst systems that are compatible, and will operate at the temperatures where you can do both processes together.”

At this time, the new catalytic method is still a proof-of-concept, and not ready for commercial use. For example, the second catalyst tends to break down. But Schrock says this problem should be solvable: “It’s theoretically possible that this could become practical. I e-mailed Alan Goldman and said, ‘Look, we’ve got a lot of catalysts, and I can think of some things that might be thermally more stable.’ So I’m going to send him some catalysts, and he’s going to try them out.”

It also might be possible to make catalysts that use products from the first reaction to regenerate themselves. “Then the catalyst wouldn’t die, and you could in fact keep the reaction going,” says Schrock.

Hope page image courtesy of Joseph Blumberg.  Caption: Postdoctoral associate Ritu Ahuja demonstrates the catalyst material to graduate student Elizabeth Pelczar and professor Alan Goldman.

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