Technique Promises Dramatic Efficiency Boost for Chemical Processing Reactions

Feb. 16, 2024
Practical applications could lead to significantly more efficient production of various chemical materials with minimal energy input.

MIT researchers have discovered a technique that significantly enhances the efficiency of key chemical reactions crucial for petrochemical processing and pharmaceutical manufacturing. By applying a small external voltage, they achieved rate increases of up to 100,000-fold in non-redox chemical reactions catalyzed by acids. This approach, previously known in electrochemical research but not applied to thermochemical reactions, challenges traditional understanding by emphasizing the importance of surface electrochemical potential alongside chemical binding energy.

The findings were reported in the journal Science, in a paper by MIT graduate student Karl Westendorff, professors Yogesh Surendranath and Yuriy Roman-Leshkov.

“The results are really striking,” said Surendranath, a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, in a Feb. 15 press release. Rate increases of that magnitude have been seen before but in a different class of catalytic reactions known as redox half-reactions, which involve the gain or loss of an electron. The dramatically increased rates reported in the new study “have never been observed for reactions that don’t involve oxidation or reduction,” he says.

The team has already filed a provisional patent application on parts of the process and is working on ways to apply the findings to specific chemical processes. Westendorff says their findings suggest that “we should design and develop different types of reactors to take advantage of this sort of strategy. And we’re working right now on scaling up these systems.”

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