Magic: “Influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” Precious metals are alluring and magical because of their inactivity toward chemical reactions; they are extremely stable and hence are also termed “noble metals.” During the industrial revolution mankind realized that noble metals have the power to influence the course of chemical events – through catalysis. A catalyst is defined as a substance that facilitates a chemical transformation without itself being consumed in the process; this power has a mysterious, almost magic-wand character. In this review we explore precious metal catalysis through the wide-angle lens of historical development and the atomic scale microscope of recent discoveries. Fundamental understanding of underlying mechanisms for catalytic oxidation processes reveals the magic and transforms the use of noble metals from instruments of adornment, trade and Edisonian industrialization, to key players in a new era of catalysis by design with potential for environmentally benign chemical processing.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(11)70085-2