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"Catalytic Converted" -- The Discovery Files

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A chemistry professor at Princeton University has developed a process that allows ordinary iron to be used as a substitute catalyst in certain reactions that up till now have required precious metals.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Metal masters of disguise

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Platinum, rhodium, iridium. Precious metals that don't necessarily make up many common products--but are necessary in the making of those things. They act as catalysts, to help start or sustain many chemical reactions. The reasons they're deemed 'precious' range from scarcity to geopolitics. 'Precious' also denotes 'pricey'--some of these rare elements command mega-prices for miniscule amounts. Sure be nice if we could create some of these in a lab.

No one has yet come up with a recipe for 'instant iridium', 'faux rhodium', or "I can't believe it's not platinum"--but chemist Paul Chirik at Princeton has developed the next best thing:  A way to make common metals act like precious ones. With his technique, in a catalytic role, metals like iron function like platinum. Manganese and cobalt are also being tested in this process that basically puts a metal atom inside a molecule, called a ligand. The ligand forces the atom to mimic the precious metal.

This project is a springboard that may help developers come up with economical, dependable and sustainable methods of creating the important catalytic reactions needed to make many of the things we touch, wear, store, fly, drive, watch, heal with, play with, navigate, sit on, stand on, or power up.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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