Summary. The microscopic nature of the surface of metal oxides is discussed, and a variety of surface defects are described. The chemical activity of these defects form the basis for the well-known catalytic properties of oxide materials. The types of defects likely to occur on interstellar oxide grains are investigated. Guided by extensive laboratory data on the catalytic properties of oxide materials, a list is given of reactions likely to occur on oxide grains in the interstellar medium. A specific model is proposed for the site which catalyses H2 formation on interstellar grain surfaces. Sites of importance in the formation of the molecules are proposed to be of the (OH ) type, as commonly observed on the surface of oxide materials. Under a plausible set of assumptions, molecular formation rates are estimated for low-density clouds, and it is suggested that the mechanisms described here will contribute significantly to interstellar chemistry.