The reason is because of the machine they use: the Temporal Analysis of Products reactor, or TAP reactor for short. It’s a large and complex piece of equipment that most researchers don’t know how to build and maintain — or simply don’t want to.
Catalysts provide a cheaper, faster way to make a vast array of everyday chemical products humans have come to depend on, such as fuel and fertilizer. Because these products are produced at such a scale there is a dire need to make catalysts that are even more energy-efficient or don’t result in unwanted byproducts.
TAP reactors can help probe for better, more efficient catalysts by closely analyzing their chemistry over a period of time. Taking these measurements sounds simple enough; the difficulty lies with trying to test under ultra-high vacuum conditions. There could be a leak; the pulsing valve may not fire at precisely the correct time; there could be too little material; the response from the mass spectrometer could be poorly scaled. And sometimes it just won’t work. It’s one of the reasons there are fewer than 20 of these reactors in the whole world.
“[The machine] will always get a result,” said Reece, who is originally from Cardiff in Wales. “But whether that result is valid is up for debate.” When it does work, however, the process is extremely elegant, he said: “It’s just a wonderful way to study chemical reactions.”