In the early 20th century, smokers ruining their lungs could do so with the help of a nifty little gadget called the catalytic lighter. It looked like a small double metal tube. Put one tube in the other and voila, fire. No flint, no sparks. The secret to the catalytic lighter? Platinum.
Making fire is just chemistry, after all, and the catalytic lighter involves a specific kind of chemical reaction. As the video from Applied Science explains, one tube of the lighter is a wick filled with methanol. The other tube has a piece of platinum black, or powdered and compressed platinum, suspended on a wire also made of, yes, platinum.
When platinum meets methanol, it catalyzes a chemical reaction where methanol loses an electron. This releases enough heat to allow other methanol molecules to combust. There you have it, fire.
Applied Science's video includes a few other related demos, including antique catalytic hand warmer. You can actually still buy catalytic hand warmers, in case you're curious to have a catalytic reaction in your pocket. [via Digg]