Licence to Go where no Chemist has Gone Before
Scientists have recently overcome one of the significant research challenges facing electrochemists. For the first time, chemists and engineers at The University of Nottingham have found a way of probing right into the heart of an electrochemical reaction. Their findings will help scientists understand how catalysts work.
Using spectroscopy under ultra high vacuum, the researchers overcame significant challenges to be able to study the reaction at the point where the solution touches the surface of the metal electrode bringing in the electricity. The research has been hailed as an important step forward in the development of new catalysts and sensors.
Because catalysts — materials used to create a chemical reaction — are dissolved in a solution, it is often very hard to understand why they work so well. Normally, solutions evaporate almost instantaneously under high vacuum. Under the direction of Pete Licence in the School of Chemistry, the team overcame this obstacle by using one of the many room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs) — so-called designer solvents which do not evaporate under such conditions.
Licence said: “It wasn’t easy, and we had phenomenal problems. We could do the electrochemistry in the vacuum, and we could measure the spectra of ionic liquids — but to do both at the same time has been a real uphill struggle — but now we have cracked it.”
With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leverhulme Trust, Licence and his team have successfully managed to integrate electrochemistry with UHV spectroscopy to allow the in-situ characterization of interesting metal-based compounds while in solution. They believe that their technique will allow them to shed light on the design of new catalysts for energy generation and efficient chemical production using ionic liquid based approaches.
Licence’s research, in the Nottingham Ionic Liquids Group, focuses on both the exploitation and manipulation of some of the unusual physical properties that are offered by alternative solvent systems, especially room-temperature ionic liquids. His group is part of the University’s DICE project, which brings chemists and engineers together to solve challenging scientific problems.
“The implementation of green chemistry and sustainability are key concepts that run throughout both my research and teaching interests,” Licence said. “The development of environmentally benign materials and products via efficient, clean chemistry is my long-term goal. As a result of this research, we can design more efficient catalysts, new probes, sensors, functionalized electrodes. We really want to push this technology to see how far we can take it.”
The results appear in the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journal Chemical Communications, and the article also has been featured in Highlights in Chemical Science, which showcases news from across RSC publishing.