Researchers Boost Chemical Reactions Using Electricity

Jan. 3, 2024
University of Chicago researchers found a way to use electricity to boost a type of chemical reaction used in synthesizing new candidates for pharmaceutical drugs.

A study by chemists at the University of Chicago found a way to use electricity to boost a chemical reaction often used in synthesizing new candidates for pharmaceutical drugs.

According to a press release from UC, the research is an advance in the field of electrochemistry and shows a path forward to designing and controlling reactions — and making them more sustainable.

“What we want to do is understand what’s happening at the fundamental level at the electrode interface and use that to predict and design more efficient chemical reactions,” explained Anna Wuttig, UC professor. “This is a step towards that eventual goal.”

Wuttig’s team focused on the electrode's surface, which provides electricity to the reaction. They tinkered with a reaction commonly used in manufacturing chemicals for medicine to form a bond between two carbon atoms.

According to theoretical predictions, when this reaction is performed using electricity, the yield is 100%, but when the reaction is run in the lab, the yield is lower.

The team thought the presence of the electrode was tempting some molecules away from where they were needed during the reaction. They found adding a chemical known as a Lewis acid to the liquid solution redirected those molecules.

The team used special imaging techniques to watch the reactions unfold at the molecular level. “You can see that the presence of the modulator has a profound effect on the interfacial structure,” noted Wuttig. “This allows us to visualize and understand what’s happening, rather than regard it as a black box.” 

This is a crucial step, Wuttig stressed, because it shows a path forward towards using the electrode in chemistry and predicting and controlling its effects.

Another benefit is that the electrode can be re-used for more reactions. 

“This is a step towards sustainable synthesis,” she said. “Moving forward, my group is very excited to use these types of concepts and strategies to map out and address other synthetic challenges.”

Their research was published Jan. 2 in Nature Catalysis.

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