Scientists control chemical reactions with static electricity

March 3, 2016, Australian National University

Scientists have harnessed static electricity to control chemical reactions for the first time, in a breakthrough that could bring cleaner industry and cheaper nanotechnology.

The team used an electric field as a catalyst for a common reaction, the Diels-Alder reaction, improving its reaction rate by a factor of five.

Lead researcher Professor Michelle Coote from ANU Research School of Chemistry said the team had overturned conventional thinking with their new-found control of the common reaction, which is used to make a range of chemicals from self-healing materials to the drug cortisone.

"It's the most unexpected result possible," said Professor Coote, who is also a Chief Investigator with ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES). "We now have a totally new way of thinking about chemistry.

"The breakthrough could speed up manufacturing processes and allow unprecedented control of , for example in manufacturing flexible electronic components based on organic circuits," she said.

An electric field catalyst is completely different to conventional catalysts, which are often based on expensive rare chemicals and can create unwanted by-products or contaminate the final products.

Professor Michelle Coote

As electric fields can be turned on and off very quickly from outside the test-tube, the new approach gives the researchers remote control over chemical processes.

Professor Coote predicted that electric fields could strongly affect reaction rates, but it had never been observed before because standard chemical reactions are conducted with molecules oriented in random directions in a gas or liquid.

The Centre of Excellence brought together a team, including researchers from Universitat de Barcelona in Spain and Dr Simone Ciampi from the University of Wollongong, that devised a way to test Professor Coote's prediction, using the electric field generated by the tip of a scanning-tunneling electron microscope.

The group oriented all the molecules in the same direction by attaching them to a surface and then used the probe of the electron microscope to test each molecule.

By changing the strength and polarity of the electric field, the team were able to vary the rate of the Diels-Alder reaction, in which a conjugated diene and a substituted diene form a cyclohexene system, by a factor of five

Professor Coote said the result will help research understand a lot of natural biochemical reactions.

"Nature uses enzymes as the ultimate catalyst, which can vary reaction rates by 14 orders of magnitude," she said.

"Enzymes work with carefully oriented charged functional groups, held in precise orientations, effectively generating an oriented within the active site."

Professor Coote started the project when ANU joined the University of Wollongong as an ACES partner and was introduced to colleagues at Universitat de Barcelona.

ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace said it is only a holistic approach to interdisciplinary research that can take ideas to industries in the shortest time possible.

"The collegial environment and multidisciplinary approach within ACES meant that we could mobilise all the skills necessary-from molecular modelling to exquisite experiments-very quickly to enable this amazing discovery," Professor Wallace said.

The breakthrough has been published in the latest edition of Nature.

Explore further: Innovative molecule helps palladium catalyst create complex compounds

More information: Albert C. Aragonès et al. Electrostatic catalysis of a Diels–Alder reaction, Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nature16989

Related Stories

Researchers seek efficient means of splitting water

February 5, 2016

Photovoltaics promise to help meet our energy needs by turning sunlight into electricity. We can't run everything that way, but with a little tweaking, photovoltaic materials can use solar energy to split water into hydrogen ...

Recommended for you

A protein that self-replicates

February 22, 2018

ETH scientists have been able to prove that a protein structure widespread in nature – the amyloid – is theoretically capable of multiplying itself. This makes it a potential predecessor to molecules that are regarded ...

Squid skin could be the solution to camouflage material

February 22, 2018

Cephalopods—which include octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish—are masters of disguise. They can camouflage to precisely match their surroundings in a matter of seconds, and no scientist has quite been able to replicate the ...

The cryo-electron microscopy structure of huntingtin

February 22, 2018

Mutations on a single gene, the huntingtin gene, are the cause of Huntington's disease. They lead to an incorrect form of the correspondent protein. With the help of cryo-electron microscopy researchers from the Max Planck ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) Mar 03, 2016
Dr Royal Raymond Rife used devices that had high levels of voltage, as do other 'alternative healing' technologies.

Many so called 'over unity' technologies, over the years, have used high voltage levels, to 'leverage' atomic reactions.

When one removes the interference of trillion dollar corporate interests from this sort of simple bit of technological knowing and use, well, you can see where this leads.

Previously, this sort of medical science was called 'quackery', but yet the history of it spoke of incredible successes. "Not based in science!" the detractors with trillion dollar backing, scream.

Same for the transmutation and over unity sciences which also use extreme voltage polarization in their methodologies.

This lesson can be powerful for those who can learn it: New science is not in the textbooks, it's in the anecdotal and experimental accounts that exist on the fringes. To stop falling prey to inaccurate controlist dogma.
5 / 5 (5) Mar 03, 2016
Hmm..I wonder if this is the first step towards atomic level 3D printing from naked elements (which would probably be the most transformative/disruptive tech...ever)
2 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2016
Hmm..I wonder if this is the first step towards atomic level 3D printing from naked elements (which would probably be the most transformative/disruptive tech...ever)

I thought that was already a possibility with electron tunneling microscopes. They can pick up and move individual atoms.

The issue has always been, that a gram of stuff contains on the order of 10e22 atoms, so "printing" naked elements is never going to be a fast or efficient way to assemble macroscopic objects even if you could lay down a trillion atoms a second. It would still take you 300 years to build a gram-weight object.

You need some kind of bulk process that won't have to deal with individual molecules.

That's the implausible bit about Star Trek replicators. There's just too many bits, and the amount of energy required simply to encode and transmit that information would be astounding.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2016
And on that note, imagine if the Star Trek replicator was using some sort of approximation process to reduce the amount of information by a factor of the Avogadro's number. It would do things like substitute cells in the human body with generic copies where necessary every time you beam up and down.

That would lead to replication loss, and eventual breakdown of the organism over multiple transports, or even just one.

That's why Gene Roddenberry wrote the transporters so that they actually "transform" the person into some sort of "energy" that re-substantiates at the point of arrival. The replicators and transporters in the Star Trek fiction are not digital scanner/printers in how we would imagine them now in contrast to actual 3D printers. They're fundamentally operating on "space magic".

5 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2016

I thought that was already a possibility with electron tunneling microscopes. They can pick up and move individual atoms.

But not control what they bond to. If you want to print something complex (like a protein for that 3D printed steak) the getting the elements to bond exactly where they're supposed to is key.

printing" naked elements is never going to be a fast or efficient way

Really depends on how well you can parallelize the process. To print a steak you don't need to print it one go. Printing cells and then assembling them together would be adequate.
And a trillion atoms a second isn't exactly a huge number - since time between print processes scales with distance.

It may be impractical now - but implausible in the near future? Hardly.

every time you beam up and down

Beaming isn't what this is about.
not rated yet Mar 05, 2016
Beaming isn't what this is about.

Well, in the replicator fiction, the transporters and replicators work on the same space magic.

And a trillion atoms a second isn't exactly a huge number - since time between print processes scales with distance.

Suppose you had a atomic scale bed of nails with a trillion little "nozzles" to 3D print your proteins a trillion molecules at the same time: how do you deliver the atoms to the tips?

Printing cells and then assembling them together would be adequate.

That has the additional issue of the chemicals you print not being inert. When you print a protein, it instantly folds and starts to catalyze some reaction, so you can't just print a cell bit by bit and then hit a button to start it. Parts of it start to go as soon as they're even half-way assembled.
not rated yet Mar 05, 2016
If you intend to do living cells, you basically have to synthesize the DNA and grow the cell, because a cell has no on/off button. It's an organism, not a mechanism.

You let the cell assemble itself. Then you can 3D print them into a steak. But that's no longer what we're talking about, and we can already synthesize DNA and grow artifical cells using basic chemistry.

Of course the same problems apply to other chemicals that are not stable. Suppose you're trying to print nitroglyserine.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2016
And a trillion atoms a second isn't exactly a huge number

Indeed it isn't. It's a very small number considering the task you have at hand.

12 grams of carbon is roughly 6 x 10 ^ 23 atoms. The same amount of hydrogen weighs 1 grams. You need to put down trillion times trillion atoms per second to produce objects in the gram scale at a meaningful speed for any sort of bulk/mass manufacturing - such as producing steaks.

That's the power of chemistry. When you pour reagents and a catalyst in a large vat, there will be trillion trillion trillion reactions per second, and more. Trying to do them all individually in a controlled manner with some sort of mechanism like a needle tip is just ridiculously cumbersome.

It's like trying to boil a kettle of tea by striking matches under it - except about a million times more implausible.

Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Mar 05, 2016
All I know is - THIS is Science in action!
If I wasn't already married - I'd look this chick up!
Mar 05, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Mar 05, 2016
Perhaps this article was about verifying how enzymes are doing their work??

It wasn't about building molecules using a STEM, it was about deducing a mechanism, and testing it. These results can then be used to help understand how enzymes work. This could help us build artificial enzymes by improving on natures designs. These enzymes are what will do the hard chemical grunt work for us.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.