What is a Catalyst?

Scientists often add a catalyst to a chemical solution to cause a reaction.
Catalysts are important in the laboratory as well as in manufacturing and industry.
Catalysts accelerate a chemical reaction.
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  • Written By: J.Gunsch
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2015
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A catalyst is any substance that works to accelerate a chemical reaction. It can be organic, synthetic or metal. The process by which this substance speeds up or slows a reaction is called catalysis.

For any process to occur, energy, known as activation energy is required. Without the help of a catalyst, the amount of energy needed to spark a particular reaction is high. When one is present, the activation energy is lowered, making the reaction happen more efficiently. The substance generally works by either changing the structure of a molecule or by bonding to reactant molecules causing them to combine, react, and release a product or energy. For example, a catalyst is required for oxygen and hydrogen gases to combine and form water.

Without the help of a catalyst, chemical reactions might never occur or take a significantly longer period of time to react. When the chemical reaction occurs, the catalyst itself is not changed and is not part of the end result. Most times, it can be reused over and over in subsequent reactions.

Sometimes instead of accelerating a reaction, a catalyst works to slow a reaction that would normally not occur or occur very slowly. This type of substance is a negative catalyst, which is also referred to as an inhibitor. Inhibitors are important in medicine, where they are critical in treating mental illnesses, high blood pressure, cancer, and myriad other health problems.


A catalyst is used in two types of conditions, either chemical or biochemical. The most common in biochemical reactions are enzymes. Enzymes are highly specialized proteins that accelerate specific chemical reactions. They make life possible. For example, an enzyme found in saliva breaks up food for digestion on contact. With out this, it would take weeks for humans to digest our food.

Catalysts are also important in the laboratory as well as in manufacturing and industry. One of the most famous is the catalytic converter, which helps to prevent automobile emissions and make fuel consumption more efficient. Fertilizers are also catalysts that speed up plant growth.


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Discuss this Article

Post 56
@pleonasm - It's interesting how the language changes. I didn't realize a catalyst was an actual scientific term, I'd always heard it in fantasy type novels, where they are talking about a person or object that's going to set events in motion or change the game somehow. Which is kind of the same definition, I suppose.
Post 55

@anon109023 - That's pretty much the reason why catalysts are used. They speed up reactions between chemicals and they sometimes can help a reaction to happen that might not otherwise happen.

For example, they need to use nickel as a catalyst when they are making margarine because it helps to make the vegetable fats react with hydrogen and solidify in that particular way. Nickel isn't in margarine though and it's only there to make the reaction happen or happen faster.

They also use enzymes in a lot of food production as they can speed up processing in various ways, or they can make food react in a particular way that's desirable.

Post 54

@anon2251 - Technically, a fertilizer isn't a catalyst in the scientific sense, because it doesn't make a chemical reaction faster (unless you are talking about a specific chemical fertilizer and a specific chemical reaction).

It is, however, a catalyst in the popular sense, in that it can accelerate plant growth.

But I'm not quite sure how to answer how you "get it back". If you are talking about fertilizer in gardens, generally you don't get it back. The nutrients go into the plants and then are either harvested, or put back into the soil, depending on what you do with the plants.

Post 51

Can anyone tell me what pre-treater catalyst is?

Post 45

Suggested answer to anon 47109 for a 5 word definition of "catalyst."

Definition: Performance generated by outside addition.

Post 42

mercuric chloride is a catalyst, and as written, most catalysts are reusable, so why isn't this one in particular reusable?

Post 40

what is a synthetic catalyst? which one is better, synthetic catalyst or natural catalyst?

Post 39

i can't find why a catalyst is used in industries other than the speed of a reaction. if anyone knows the answer, please help.

Post 32

lol i hacked this account

Post 22

How does catalyst affect the chemical reaction from thermodynamic and kinetic point of view?

Post 18

an example of a catalyst is electricity or heat.

Post 17

i need to do a project on catalysis and i can't find a question to base it on. the project is basically a long systematic answer (proof) to the main question in the beginning (aim). i just can't seem to think of a question to do my project on. any ideas please?

Post 15

catalysts for chemical reactions: seven-letter word.

Post 14

what is a simple, like five-word definition of a catalyst?

Post 13

i need help if any one who wants to help me understand it. Answer me please.

Post 4

think of a catalyst as someone encouraging a person to do something negative. eg. start a fight

Post 3

describe the uses of catalysts in biochemical systems and industries.

Post 2

what are the other samples of catalyst?

Post 1

If a fertilizer is a catalyst, how do you get it back after a reaction?

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