A chemical catalyst can be described as:

Catalysis (/kəˈtælᵻsᵻs/) is the increase in the rate of a chemical reaction due to the participation of an additional substance called a catalyst (/ˈkætəlᵻst/). With a catalyst, reactions occur faster and require less activation energy. Because catalysts are not consumed in the catalyzed reaction, they can continue to catalyze the reaction of further quantities of reactant. Often only tiny amounts are required.

There are many physical processes, that do need a huge amount of energy to get started. Think of nuclear fusion, but also simple macroscopic things like rolling something up-hill, so that it can roll down the other side of the hill.

Now let's assume, physical catalysts are found. These hypothetic things/fields/particles reduce the amount of energy needed to initiate a reaction (think domino tiles, not chemical reactions like burning). In the course of this action they themselves will not be consumed.

(If you yell "conservation of energy!" right now, let's just assume, that the physics behind the mechanism is not completely understood yet, but the net energy of the system at times $t_0$ (start of reaction) and $t_1$ (end of reaction) is the same.)

Some things will not work, especially not reduction of entropy (converting thermal energy into mechanical energy by "un-frictioning").

What could be invented with physical catalysts? Some things off the top of my head, that might work:

  • extremely dense batteries based on nuclear fusion (store by fusing H to He, obtain vice versa, but perfectly controlled by the amount of catalyst present)
  • better drives, weapons, ... because chemical energy can be transfered into kinetic energy with almost zero loss (thanks to some convoluted processes in the presence of a catalyst)
  • macroscopic "tunneling" through barriers (no need for "up-hill" energy investment followed by "down-hill" gain, because catalysts take care of that)

These would surely be only some primitive examples of the first generation of things using physical catalysts. Where could such a development lead to?

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    $\begingroup$ A bit confused...are you going with a catalyst (lets say an inanimate carbon rod) is attached to an object such as a giant boulder, then the energy required to push the boulder up a hill is dramatically reduced due to the presence of the inanimate carbon rod? Or just the energy to overcome the friction of starting the boulder rolling is reduced? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Aug 18 '16 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ Anything that provides mechanical advantage or reduces friction could be considered a "physical catalyst". Wheels. Levers. Lubrication. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Aug 18 '16 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ I have added a "too broad" close vote because this is... well, just that. You are not building a world here, you are brainstorming on an extremely high level and have note even started to build a world. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jun 15 '17 at 9:47

The answer to this is virtually limitless. If you think about it, there are only two things which get between you and the construction of any structure or engine of your pleasing:

  • Total energy must be conserved.
  • The activation energy for designing such things is quite high. For example, we can't build a new fighter plane until we've sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into development.

With a catalyst that can speed up any reaction you please, with the one requirement that it obey thermodynamics, you could literally construct anything. Anything. For example, you could have a catalyst which turns sand into a volume of the complete works of Shakespeare, as long as you obeyed energy and mass conservation.

If you added a requirement for obeying information theoretic laws, the complete works of Shakespeare would be impossible, because your catalyst and raw ingredients may not know enough to recreate them using the information locally available. However, they may be able to create a work of art subjectively comparable to that of the works of Shakespeare, drawing meaning from the quasi-random structure of the sand grains.

In such a world, information would be king. Any physical structure you need would be trivial to construct; any engine you need could be developed. All you would need is the information required to construct it!


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