Catalysis in Lyon

The history of catalysis in Lyon was shaped by Marcel Prettre, who was named Professor of Industrial Chemistry at the Lyon Faculty of Sciences shortly prior to WWII.

At the time, catalysis was carried out in Lyon’s university and industrial research laboratories as a technique leading to a particular reaction product, rather than as a science with the aim of understanding the nature of the catalyst and its role in the reaction mechanism. In the field of organic chemistry, nickel or “platinum black” hydrogenation catalysts, as well as chromium or vanadium oxide oxidation catalysts, to cite only these two types of reactions, were well known and were studied only in terms of yield and selectivity. The intimate reaction mechanism and the nature of the solid state of the catalyst were often unknown. The true study of the steps of the catalytic reaction in relation to the state of the catalyst was initiated only around the 1940s in the Laboratory of Industrial Chemistry. Its incumbent was not initially an expert in this domain, however. His specialisation, acquired during his doctoral research in Paris, was in combustion mechanisms. The school of combustion, directed at this time by the students of Professor Paul Pascal and later by P. Laffitte, has acquired an international renown. The Lyon school of catalysis was thus created ab nihilo for the benefit of its researchers, who later spread their influence throughout France and the rest of the world.
The war years, which obviously were not favourable for the development of research of any kind, let alone in a new field, nevertheless saw the beginning of the Laboratory of Industrial Chemistry’s studies of Fischer-Tropsch catalysis based on M. Prettre’s hypothesis of methane participation. Even though, upon later reprisal by American researchers (P. H. Emmett), this hypothesis could not be confirmed using isotopes (which had not been available to the Lyon laboratory), trans-Atlantic attention was brought to the Lyon group. M. Prettre could therefore justify organising the first international congress on adsorption and heterogeneous catalysis in Lyon in 1949, the participants of which included the personalities of the catalysis world and, naturally, the researchers from Lyon’s Laboratory of Industrial Chemistry. The dice had been tossed, and the Lyon school prospered, taking on increasingly honourable ranking in the field of adsorption and heterogeneous catalysis.
The American organisers of the First International Congress on Catalysis, which took place in Philadelphia in 1956, invited to participate two Lyon researchers, Y. Trambouze and S. Teichner, and one At this time an event of considerable importance occurred in Lyon. The CNRS-financed construction of the Institut de Recherches sur la Catalyse (IRC) provided the research possibilities and the buildings hoped for by the university’s school of catalysis and its director, Marcel Prettre. In this Institute, the Lyon teams were joined by those originating from the Parisian laboratory of Professor Laffitte (B. Imelik). In approximately three years, the Institute was not only constructed on the former site of the Villeurbanne racetrack, but its laboratories were fully equipped in heavy and semi-heavy research materials (electronic microscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, various spectroscopies - such as I.R. et U.V - allowing the direct investigation of the catalytic reaction, microcalorimetry, and radiochemistry). The creation of CNRS positions for engineers, technicians and administrative personnel (ITA) quickly made these various research techniques operational and made it possible to accommodate many researchers.Institut Français du Pétrole researcher (J.-Cl. Balaceanu, who later became director of the IFP).

At this time an event of considerable importance occurred in Lyon. The CNRS-financed construction of the Institut de Recherches sur la Catalyse (IRC) provided the research possibilities and the buildings hoped for by the university’s school of catalysis and its director, Marcel Prettre. In this Institute, the Lyon teams were joined by those originating from the Parisian laboratory of Professor Laffitte (B. Imelik). In approximately three years, the Institute was not only constructed on the former site of the Villeurbanne racetrack, but its laboratories were fully equipped in heavy and semi-heavy research materials (electronic microscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, various spectroscopies - such as I.R. et U.V - allowing the direct investigation of the catalytic reaction, microcalorimetry, and radiochemistry). The creation of CNRS positions for engineers, technicians and administrative personnel (ITA) quickly made these various research techniques operational and made it possible to accommodate many researchers.

The creation of IRC in Lyon was viewed by American researchers as a clear challenge. Under the direction of Professor P. H. Emmett, a committee canvassed industries and American public organisations (NSF) in the hopes of assembling the funds necessary for a comparable institute. The large industrial companies involved in catalysis were firmly opposed to this project, however, due to the risk of “brain drain” toward such an Institute and due to their fear of revelation of industrial secrets following patent registration by the institute.