Alchemy always sought the philosopher’s stone -not Harry Potter’s-, a substance that should be able to turn any metal into gold and  give eternal life to anyone who knew how to handle it.

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From a current point of view these legends seem like the science fiction of this time. However a part of these stories is becoming real in recent years. The task of turning base metals into gold is too far from reality, at least a profitable manner to do that, because it is true that  there are nuclear reactions in stars where the elements change as a result of collisions at high energy states .

In the XXI century scientist has not discovered philosopher’s stone but there are lots of investigations about catalyst, substances capable of converting others. Catalysts are chemical compounds as exaggerated definition we can say that they are able to turn water into wine. It can sound a bit extreme but catalyst perform even more difficult task, for example in our cars there are catalyst which are able to convert toxic nitrogen monoxide in a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, common gasses in a clean air. Is not this task more complicated than turning water into grape juice with alcohol? Catalytic substances even can perform chemical reactions that never had occurred in the absence of the catalyst. Furthermore they allow reducing costs by decreasing amount of energy needed or reaction time. Importance of this field can be seen in the number of Nobel Prize in Chemistry for contributions to catalysis. Catalysts have uncovered new drugs and materials; and the cost reduction as popularized lots of products which have increased the quality of life for all mankind.

A catalyst is usually a substance that in small amounts gets a great effect and can be reusable. In molecular terms, a catalyst is a molecule capable of binding –or separating- others to form a new compound, at the end of the reaction the catalyst returns to its initial state and therefore is reusable. Amount of catalyst is minimal and reusable, even though most of the catalysts are formed by chemical compounds that contain less abundant and high cost metals, this investment is not a problem. Currently the best catalysts are metals such as palladium, platinum, rhodium or gold. But research does not stop, actually scientist are attempting to use for the same reactions cheaper metals like iron, even in some cases they are trying to use non-metal such as silicon which can be obtained from sand.

Johan Cruyff said that “playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”. This philosophy can be applied to catalysis where the simplest process is often the most difficult to achieve. Examples are catalysis processes in human body where catalysts are composed only of a few simple elements which form very complex molecules. These catalysts of the human body are also called enzymes and reactions were carried out at 37 degrees -the temperature of the body- in aqueous medium. Our body is able to perform chemical reactions in vivo that could not be reproduced in any laboratory in the world. Nevertheless in this sense scientis are working to mimic natural processes outside the human body and thus achieve a greener chemistry.

We may never find the philosopher’s stone , but the catalysts are a step in the pursuit of this legendary object.

Finally, this is a video about applications of palladium complexes as catalyst. English subtitles are available in options.