Metal catalysts, with their ability to both speed up chemical reactions and influence product structures, have revolutionized manufacturing of essential goods such as petroleum and pharmaceuticals. The constant search for new catalysts that can improve existing methods has spurred chemists to investigate a relatively unknown part of the periodic table-the rare-earth elements.
Rare earths, named for the uncommon minerals in which they were first discovered, possess remarkable chemical properties owing to their internal electronic configuration. Now, Zhaomin Hou from the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute in Wako and colleagues have used an yttrium-based rare-earth cluster to generate a new series of complexes that hold vital structural clues towards improving catalytic reactions1.
Hou and co-workers studied one of industry’s most critical reactions: the reduction of carbon monoxide (CO) molecules attached to transition metal catalysts. In this process, a reagent known as a hydride causes CO to gain electrons or hydrogen, producing useful liquid hydrocarbons. Scientists know little about the mechanism of this reaction, however, and industry greatly desires more efficient catalysts.