Researchers study surfaces to improve critical catalysts

catalysis image croppedPULLMAN, Wash. – A WSU research team has developed a way to identify important chemical changes that occur during complex reactions on the surfaces of catalysts.

Led by Jean-Sabin McEwen, assistant professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, the work could lead to improved catalysts, which are critical in industry and are used in 90 percent of the world’s chemical processes and 60 percent of chemical products. The work is featured on the cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

Catalysts facilitate and direct molecular transformations in chemical reactions. But in working to improve them, researchers have been limited by poor understanding of what chemicals are on the catalyst surface under different conditions during the catalytic process.

“When testing new catalysts, researchers know what the input chemicals are and can determine what the end products are, but what happens in between those two steps can only be guessed at,” said McEwen.

March 1 cover of Physical Chemistry featuring story on catalysis.
March 1 cover of Physical Chemistry featuring story on catalysis.

If researchers can determine what specific chemicals are on the catalyst surfaces during the chemical reactions, they could vastly improve their performance.

“This information about the chemical “intermediates” on the surface is invaluable for the design of catalysts,” said McEwen. “We can only truly engineer new catalysts if we actually know what on the surface needs changing.”

The researchers used computational modeling and an experimental technique called x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to identify the chemical changes during the complex reactions on the catalyst surfaces. They successfully tested their method with the decomposition of guaiacol, a chemical found in bio-oil, on a platinum surface.

The researchers’ technique goes well beyond the typical approach in which experimental results only provide the starting point for theoretical models, said McEwen. The researchers were able to construct and validate realistic models of reactions during every step of the experimental process.

“It’s something that has never been done to this level of precision,” he said. “This type of collaborative approach has immense potential in the identification of chemical species, reaction pathways, and design variables for many catalytic processes.”

The work at WSU was funded by a grant from the Department of Energy Catalysis program.



  • Tina Hilding, communications director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, 509-335-5095,


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