18.04.2024 | 04:00 – 05:30

ETROD-Opening Session: "Catalysis – A Molecular Planetary Technology"

Benjamin Steininger (TU Berlin)


Dear colleagues,

we are delighted to announce the upcoming ETROD cycle on “chemistry and society”. As usual, ETROD takes place online on Thursdays, 4-5:30 pm (CET) sharp.

Amid multiple and ongoing energy and pollution crises, social scientists increasingly pay attention to the role of chemical knowledges, compositions, and potentialities. This line of work reminds us that chemistry sets the scene for the social life of natural resources. In the upcoming summer and winter term, ETROD attends to the “chemical turn” and presents a series of lectures on the relation between chemistry and society. Some of the leading scholars in this field will introduce their perspectives on how chemistry orders extractivist pasts, presents and futures, and vice versa. Based on these insights we wish to illuminate the methodological challenges of researching the often unseeable, the conceptual potentials of thinking with chemistry, and the political and ethical implications of life-as-chemistry.

To the opening session we welcome Benjamin Steininger (TU Berlin). He will talk about “Catalysis – A Molecular Planetary Technology”.

In the session Benjamin will first give a 25-minutes talk about his work and ideas. After his introduction the floor is open to discuss the broader questions at the heart of our series.

To join us online, please use the following link:
Meeting-ID: 650 2098 8539
Kenncode: 639066


Since about 1890, substances called catalysts are used as accelerators for reactions in chemical industry – not much later they become steering agents for reactions, too. This type of micro agency, hidden in chemical plants and reactors, has proven one of the most powerful technologies of modernity and the Anthropocene. As a “molecular moblisation” this marks a shift in modern materiality, history, and in the human condition. Both World Wars, the Great Acceleration, the Green Revolution, petrochemistry, and consumer capitalism depend on catalysis products: on man-made fuels, ammunition, fertilizers, plastics, etc. Planetary and molecular, biotic and industrial, societal and chemico-physical dynamics need to be interpreted as interrelated. My talk claims for a chemically informed cultural theory and a media theory of materials. Catalyst are chemical media, and catalysis as a multiscalar, multicontext type of process calls for the respective integration of chemical, historical, societal, and geographical thinking. In a first step I will adress examplary aspects of the processuality itself, the scientifically still contested “active centres” of the reaction. In a second step I will turn to the question of “tank or plate”, to the various connections of petrochemistry and the agricultural complex. The process landscape of Leuna–Merseburg and its history can serve as one of most complex and telling spots to enter this field.


Dr. phil. Benjamin Steininger works as a postdoc at the Cluster of Excellence UniSysCat at Technical University Berlin and at the newly established MPI for Geoanthropology in Jena. He wrote a book on the technology of the Reichsautobahn and a dissertation on catalysis as a key principle of the 20th century. His research topics are a.o. the role of catalysis and fossil resources in modernity and the Anthropocene. In 2016, together with Alexander Klose, he founded the research collective „Beauty of Oil“ (beauty-of-oil.org). In 2020 they published Erdöl. Ein Atlas der Petromoderne (Russian version 2021, English version 2024), in 2021/22: Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrolage (exhibition at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg). In 2024 he contributes to the exhibition „Tank oder Teller“ of Werkleitz Gesellschaft Halle.

Please also consider joining our next sessions:

May 16th Simone Müller (Augsburg): Toxic Timescapes June 20th Jens Soentgen (Augsburg): Die moderne Chemie als Fortsetzung der Alchemie. Eine wissenschaftshistorische Umkehrung (in German) Further sessions for September, October and November 2024 are currently in the process of planning. If you wish to receive our ETROD invitations directly, please register to our mailing list by sending a mail to etrod@zirs.uni-halle.de.

ETROD is a jointly organized discussion format. Its core team is based at Martin Luther University Halle (Saale). The current cycle is mainly organized by Janine Hauer (Halle) and Ruzana Liburkina (Frankfurt/Main).

We are looking forward to the upcoming talks and discussions.

Janine (Hauer) and Ruzana (Liburkina) for the ETROD organizing team