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Any substance of which a small proportion notably affects the reaction rate of a chemical reaction without itself being changed or consumed (seecatalysis). One molecule may transform several million reactant molecules a minute. Catalysts may be gaseous, liquid, or solid; they may be inorganic compounds, organic compounds, or complex combinations. They tend to be highly specific, reacting with only one substance or a small set of substances. Substances that reduce the effectiveness of catalysts by altering them or blocking reactants' access to them are called catalyst inhibitors or catalyst poisons. Catalysts are essential to virtually all industrial chemical reactions, especially in petroleum refining and synthetic organic chemical manufacturing. Most solid catalysts are transition elements (metals) or their oxides in finely divided or porous form. In a car's catalytic converter, the platinum catalyst converts unburned hydrocarbons and nitrogen compounds to products less harmful to the environment. Water, especially saltwater, catalyzes oxidation (seeoxidation-reduction) and corrosion. Enzymes are among the most active and selective catalysts known.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on catalyst, visit Britannica.com.