Industrial Catalysis and its Impact on the Human-Earth-System in the Anthropocene


Surface of a catalyst in ammonia synthesis

Most definitions of the Anthropocene connect the new geological era to the industrial use of fossil resources. However, in the twentieth century, crude oil, coal, and natural gas have had an historic impact, not as natural but as processed resources. One of the key factors of the modern historical process and of the Great Acceleration in the twentieth century is the chemical industry, and in particular the industrial tool of catalysis.

Neither the material history of science and technology, nor cultural theories of modernity have so far drawn appropriate attention to the technicality of key drivers of modernity and the Anthropocene. Such drivers are catalysis products like motor fuels, artificial fertilizers, ammunition, lubricants, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and so forth.

From the nineteenth century until today, the particular agency of catalysts and their strange position, both in industrial and biochemical processes, gave occasion to use catalytic phenomena to philosophically interpret human agency in the industrial age (one exemplary thinker and catalysis philosopher is Alwin Mittasch, head of BASF-laboratories from 1910–1933).

The project investigates this both material and intellectual history and interprets catalysis as a model case for human-Earth interaction in the Anthropocene, and as a model case for establishing a chemical-cultural theory. It is based both at the MPIWG and at the TU-Berlin within Cluster of Excellence Unifying Systems in Catalysis (funded by the DFG, Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2008/1(UniSysCat)–390540038).

A first book has already been completed within the project: Benjamin Steininger, Alexander Klose: Erdöl. Ein Atlas der Petromoderne, Berlin (Matthes & Seitz, 2020). A second book, CatalysisA Key Principle of the 20th and 21st Century is in preparation and aims to prepare the topic as a scientific non-fiction book for both an academic as well as a broader audience.


Surface of a catalyst in ammonia synthesis | high pressure reactor | use of synthetic ammunition in World War I; Micro-, meso- and macroscopic scenes of molecular-planetary catalysis technology.