Catalytic reactions based on coal, natural gas and oil are at the heart of society producing electrical energy and heat but also fertilizers and numerous products (plastics, chemicals…). These reactions are often run at high temperatures (up to 600°C) and high pressures (over 100bar) at large industrial plants. These plants are responsible for large fractions of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since the chemical industry in Europe alone already emits 8% CO2 of the world’s total emissions. Answering the need to transform this into a renewable scheme calls for new catalysts and new processes utilizing lower pressures and temperatures and based on new starting materials: water and CO2.
Surprisingly and contrary to their abundance the microscopic details of catalytic reactions still are not well understood: even the first steps of many reactions (e.g. the Fischer-Tropsch reaction) are under debate. One reason for this lies in the fact that X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, which allows the study of materials with chemical sensitivity, requires UHV environments. The technical difficulties of integrating this with multi bar reaction environments has limited the achievable pressures to the low mbar regime.