Using a zinc oxide catalyst involves taking zinc oxide, ZnO, usually in a powdered metallic form, and using it as an accelerant in a wide variety of chemical processes. Chief among these are the rubber manufacturing industry, the setting of concrete in the building trades, and for a variety of medical and pharmaceutical applications. A zinc oxide catalyst is also an important precursor compound in the manufacture of ethanol from biomass materials for fuel. Other important uses of zinc oxide include the chemical manufacture of Β-acetamido ketones that are versatile compounds for making synthetic biological drugs.
Inorganic compounds like zinc oxide can often play a wide range of roles in industry, from the cleaning of hydrogen sulfide waste gasses from smokestacks to use in adhesives and pigments for paints. Since the material is also non-toxic to human beings, it is included in foods as a nutrient. The compound can act on organic materials like fatty acids and play a role as a zinc oxide catalyst in inorganic chemical processes as well. The most common use as of 2011 for a zinc oxide catalyst is in the process of vulcanizing rubber by sulfur removal and heat treatment to give it a durable, elastic nature. In the construction trade, zinc oxide is used to give concrete a greater ability to resist damage from water exposure over time.
In producing Β-acetamido ketones or Β-amido ketones and esters, a zinc oxide catalyst can reduce the steps involved in the process. The presence of zinc oxide also aids in generating chemicals like acetyl chloride and acetonitrile that are necessary for the manufacture of pharmaceutical drugs. Such reactions have the added advantages that they can be carried out at room temperature in mildly toxic environments and can produce high yields of the desired ketones and esters.
Along with zirconium oxide, a zinc oxide catalyst mixed with water will convert ethanol into isobutene fuel. This is an important chemical process because it can be carried out on waste plant materials like cornstalks and ordinary agricultural weeds, and produces only minimal byproducts in the process such as chemicals like acetone or ethylene. Another added advantage of the process is that the zinc oxide catalyst can be obtained from zincite, a natural mineral, instead of normal catalysts for ethanol refining, which, as of 2011, have been coming from petroleum.
Industrial manufacturers of zinc oxide catalyst compounds often sell it in one of six or more different formulas depending on for what it will be used. Many types are used for sulfur removal in the plastics industry or to produce hydrogen, ammonia, and alcohol compounds. Other concentrations of the compound can be used to make zinc oxide lotion as a sunscreen, and zinc oxide ointments that are used to treat various minor skin conditions.