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Chemistry LibreTexts

18.7: Catalysts

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  • Gasoline-powered vehicles emit a lot of harmful materials. Nitrogen oxides are formed when atmospheric nitrogen reacts with oxygen at the high temperatures found in a car engine. Carbon monoxide is a by-product of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Evaporated and unused fuel releases volatile hydrocarbons into the atmosphere to help form smog. The presence of a catalytic converter in the exhaust system of the car causes these materials to react and be changed into less harmful products.


    Sometimes a substance can be added to a chemical reaction and it will cause that reaction to undergo a dramatic increase in rate. Hydrogen peroxide is used as a disinfectant for scrapes and cuts and is found in many medicine cabinets as a \(3\%\) aqueous solution. Hydrogen peroxide naturally decomposes to produce water and oxygen gas, but the reaction is very slow. A bottle of hydrogen peroxide will last for several years before it needs to be replaced. However, the addition of just a small amount of manganese (IV) oxide to hydrogen peroxide will cause it to decompose completely in just a matter of minutes. A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction by lowering the activation energy without being used up in the reaction. After the reaction occurs, a catalyst returns to its original state and so catalysts can be used over and over again. Because it is neither a reactant nor a product, a catalyst is shown in a chemical equation by being written above the yield arrow.

    \[\ce{H_2O_2} \left( aq \right) \overset{\ce{MnO_2}}{\rightarrow} 2 \ce{H_2O} \left( l \right) + \ce{O_2} \left( g \right)\]

    A catalyst works by changing the specific way in which the reaction occurs, called its mechanism. The important outcome from the use of a catalyst is that the overall activation energy of the reaction is lowered (see figure below). With a lower activation energy barrier, a greater percentage of reactant molecules are able to have effective collisions and the reaction rate increases.

    Figure 18.7.1: The addition of a catalyst to a reaction lowers the activation energy, increasing the rate of the reaction. The activation energy of the uncatalyzed reaction is shown by \(E_a\), while the catalyzed reaction is shown by \(E_a'\). The heat of reaction \(\left( \Delta H \right)\) is unchanged by the presence of the catalyst.

    Catalysts are extremely important parts of many chemical reactions. Enzymes in your body acts as nature's catalysts, allowing important biochemical reactions to occur at reasonable rates. Chemical companies constantly search for new and better catalysts to make reactions go faster and thus make the company more profitable.


    • The function of a catalyst is described.


    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.