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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 1998 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Döbereiner's Lighter

Roald Hoffmann

The dry statement that a catalyst allows an equilibrium to be established more rapidly hardly captures the double magic of that chemical phenomenon. In the course of a reaction, the catalyst gets involved, consumed and then regenerated, touching the deep myths of resurrection, a phoenix arising from its ashes, Persephone returning to earth. And the catalyst that makes a thermodynamically feasible, yet absolutely unwilling reaction go, after oh, so many futile attempts to coax it to do what it must, inevitably evokes the mystery of mountains moved, of shut doors suddenly opening.

This is a story of a catalyst for one of the simplest chemical reactions, the combustion of hydrogen: 2H2 + O2 → 2H2O. It is also a story of chemistry in culture, of a Russian-German geopolitical tie that, in the 1820s, helped a Jena professor to invent a new way of lighting fires using platinum, normally thought of as the most chemically resistant of metals. So, this is a story of fire too. And one of modern surface chemistry.








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