The catalytic reaction that depends upon the structure of pores of the catalyst and the size of the reactant and product molecules is called shape/selective catalysis. Zeolites are good shape/selective catalysts because of their honeycomb-like structures. Zeolites are aluminosilicates i.e., three dimensional network silicates in which some silicon atoms are replaced by aluminium atoms. They are found in nature as well as synthesized for catalytic selectivity. Zeolites, before using as catalysts, are heated in vacuum so that the water of hydration is lost. As a result, zeolite becomes porous i.e., the cavities in the cage-like structure which were occupied by the water molecules become vacant. The size of the pores generally varies between 260 pm and 740 pm. Thus only those molecules can be adsorbed in these pores whose size is small enough to enter these cavities and also leave easily.
The reactions taking place in zeolites depend upon the size and shape of reactant and product molecules as well as upon the pores and cavities of the zeolites. That is why these types of reactions are called ‘shape-selective catalysis’ reactions.
Zeolites are being very widely used as catalysts in petrochemical industries for cracking of hydrocarbons and isomerisation. An important zeolite catalyst used in the petroleum industry is ZSM-5. It converts alcohols directly into gasoline (petrol) by dehydrating them so that a mixture of hydrocarbons in formed.