MIT Researchers Boost Common Catalytic Reactions

“This research is of the highest quality,” says Costas Vayenas, a professor of engineering at the university of Patras, in Greece, who was not associated with the study. The work “is very promising for practical applications, particularly since it extends previous related work in redox catalytic systems.”

Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2024 – 11:58

Westendorff says that to make it work, “You have to design a system that’s pretty unconventional to either community to isolate this effect.” And that helps explain why such a dramatic effect had never been seen before. He notes that even their paper’s editor asked them why this effect hadn’t been reported before. The answer has to do with “how disparate those two ideologies were before this,” he says. “It’s not just that people don’t really talk to each other. There are deep methodological differences between how the two communities conduct experiments. And this work is really, we think, a great step toward bridging the two.”

While their experiments so far were done with a two-dimensional planar electrode, most industrial reactions are run in three-dimensional vessels filled with powders. Catalysts are distributed through those powders, providing a lot more surface area for the reactions to take place. Westendorff says, “We’re looking at how catalysis is currently done in industry and how we can design systems that take advantage of the already existing infrastructure.”

Chemists traditionally think about surface catalysis based on the chemical binding energy of molecules to active sites on the surface, which influences the amount of energy needed for the reaction. But the new findings show that the electrostatic environment is “equally important in defining the rate of the reaction,” Surendranath says.

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

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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,” Surendranath says.

In practice, the findings could lead to far more efficient production of a wide variety of chemical materials, the team says. “You get orders of magnitude changes in rate with very little energy input,” Surendranath says. “That’s what’s amazing about it.”

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(MIT: Cambridge, MA) — A simple technique that uses small amounts of energy could boost the efficiency of some key chemical processing reactions up to a factor of 100,000, MIT researchers report. These reactions are at the heart of petrochemical processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and many other industrial chemical processes.

Roman-Leshkov says “Traditionally, people who work in thermochemical catalysis would not associate these reactions with electrochemical processes at all. However, introducing this perspective to the community will redefine how we can integrate electrochemical characteristics into thermochemical catalysis. It will have a big impact on the community in general.”

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.”

The findings, he says, “build a more holistic picture of how catalytic reactions at interfaces work, irrespective of whether you’re going to bin them into the category of electrochemical reactions or thermochemical reactions. It’s rare that you find something that could really revise our foundational understanding of surface catalytic reactions in general. We’re very excited.”

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The team included MIT postdoc Max Hulsey, Ph.D.2022, and graduate student Thejas Wesley, Ph.D. 2023, and was supported by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the U.S. Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences.