University of Utah chemists developed a method to design and test new catalysts – substances that speed chemical reactions and are crucial for producing energy, chemicals and industrial products. By using the new method, the chemists also discovered that the sizes and electronic properties of catalysts interact and affect how well a catalyst performs. They are not independent factors, as was thought previously.

The Utah researchers created a new method for rapidly identifying and designing what are known as “asymmetric catalysts,” which are catalyst molecules that are considered either left-handed or right-handed because they are physically asymmetrical. In chemistry, this property of handedness is known as chirality.

Chemistry Professor Matt Sigman and doctoral student Kaid Harper combined principles of data analysis with principles of catalyst design to create a “library” of nine related catalysts that they hypothesized would effectively catalyze a given reaction – one that could be useful for making new pharmaceuticals. Essentially, they used math to find the optimal size and electronic properties of the candidate catalysts.

Then the chemists tested the nine catalysts – known as “quinoline proline ligands” – to determine how well their degree of handedness would be passed on to the chemical reaction products the catalysts were used to produce.

This technique was used – and can be used in the future – to identify the optimal catalysts among a number of candidates. It also revealed the unexpected link between the size and electronic properties of catalysts in determining their effectiveness in speeding reactions.

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Also: Researchers have created durable synthetic catalysts for energy storage.

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