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A Catalyst for Change: Element 19
Short Film from Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute Celebrates New Discovery in Green Chemistry

PASADENA, CA – April 20, 2015

When Caltech PhD candidate Anton Toutov observed that a commonly available salt was serving as a catalyst for an important chemical process, he couldn’t believe his findings. If this worked, he knew, it could set the chemical industry on a safer and more environmentally sound path.

Over a century ago, it was discovered that special additives called catalysts could accelerate chemical reactions. This discovery gave rise to the modern chemical industry and today catalysts are used in the production of nearly 90% of the world’s chemical consumer and industrial goods-– everything from lifesaving drugs to materials for ultra-efficient solar panels and more. However, many catalysts are made from precious metals like gold and platinum, which are expensive and also produce toxic waste streams. Toutov’s unexpected discovery of an inexpensive and biodegradable potassium catalyst could change all of that.

“To be honest, I didn’t believe the data when Anton first showed it to me,” said Toutov’s faculty mentor Dr. Robert H. Grubbs, Nobel Prize winner and Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at Caltech. “It will take time, and it will be an exciting and challenging road ahead, but ultimately this discovery offers a simpler, more affordable and sustainable route towards making many essential chemical products”.

Today, the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech has released a short film, Element 19 (which is the number for potassium on the periodic table), to explain the implications of Toutov’s discovery. (Described in more scientific detail in Caltech’s news feature and in the team’s Nature article.) Shot on location at Caltech and featuring Toutov, Stoltz and Grubbs, among others involved in the discovery, it was produced by the creative teams of M. Samuels Media and Oshin Studio along with Toutov, a Dow-Resnick Fellow at Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability institute.

At the heart of the film, is Toutov’s discovery that an abundant and inexpensive potassium-based material that looks like ordinary table salt can be used as a catalyst for one of the most studied chemical reactions of the past decade.

There are a variety of significant benefits of this discovery: the potassium catalyst is renewable (it can be made entirely from plant matter), non-toxic, biodegradable, and, considerably less expensive than the precious metal catalysts currently used in the production of consumer goods. Importantly, manufacturers can start using the technology immediately since it requires no new infrastructure or training to implement.

Compared to today’s precious metal catalysts, the cost of the new potassium catalyst can be anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of times less expensive. The considerable financial incentive is an enormous enabler for companies to start using this technology to produce everything from space-age materials and substances that safely protect crops from disease all the way to perfumes and cosmetics in an environmentally friendly manner.

“With this catalyst, we have finally shown that truly sustainable chemistry may actually be possible,” Said Toutov, adding that potassium is about 25 million times more abundant on Earth than precious metal elements (which mean that while current catalyst materials like platinum and palladium are at risk of depletion, potassium will be plentiful in the centuries to come).

“It was very brave to pursue this research; it looks at the problem in different ways than ever before.” said Brian M. Stoltz, Caltech Professor of Chemistry. “Everybody is shocked and amazed. It could be a real game-changer and ultimately will lead to safer, less toxic, and overall more sustainable production of the everyday products that we depend on.”

Watch the Film

About The Resnick Sustainability Institute

The Resnick Institute is Caltech’s studio focused on the breakthroughs that will change the balance of the world’s sustainability. It marries bold creativity and deep scientific knowledge by encouraging original thinking and orthogonal ideas. The Resnick Institute works with some of the world’s top and emerging scientists – at the California Institute of Technology and beyond. Current projects at the Resnick Institute include research into energy generation, such as advanced photovoltaics, photoelectrochemical solar fuels, cellulosic biofuels, and wind energy system design; energy conversion work on batteries and fuel cells; and energy efficiency and management such as fuel efficient vehicles, green chemical synthesis, thermoelectric materials, and advanced research on electrical grid control and distribution.