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Germany: H2 Organic Research Project How Electrocatalytic Synthesis Can Make Chemical Production Sustainable

Editor: Alexander Stark

Many manufacturing processes in the chemical industry are still not sustainable. They are often based directly or indirectly on fossil fuels or result in potentially harmful by-products. Dr. Daniel Siegmund, group leader “Electrocatalysis” at Fraunhofer Umsicht, wants to minimize these disadvantages through innovative electrochemical processes.

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The electrochemical reaction cell has the potential to be transferred from small laboratory scale to industrial scale.
The electrochemical reaction cell has the potential to be transferred from small laboratory scale to industrial scale.
(Source: Fraunhofer Umsicht/Alina Gawel)

Sulzbach-Rosenberg/Germany — With the idea of using innovative materials for the electrocatalytic hydrogenation of organic chemicals, Dr. Daniel Siegmund has set out to make the manufacture of chemical products more sustainable. The group leader “Electrocatalysis” at Fraunhofer Umsicht, as well as a post-doctoral fellow with Prof. Dr. Ulf-Peter Apfel at Ruhr University Bochum, and his group “H2 Organic” began their research on this in October 2021. The project brings together science and industry. Together, they want to use electricity from renewable sources with the help of an electrochemical synthesis process to produce chemical products with a “green footprint”. For example, green electricity can eliminate the need for large quantities of chemical oxidizing and reducing agents and help avoid waste products. In addition, electrochemical processes are easy to control and generally do not require complex reaction conditions such as high temperatures or pressures.

The focus of the “H2 Organic” researchers is on the process of hydrogenation — one of the standard reactions both in the laboratory and on a large industrial scale, in which hydrogen is transferred to organic chemicals. For example, this process is used in the production of margarine. “Instead of classical hydrogenation, we want to develop a sustainable, electrochemical process that brings the above-mentioned advantages,” Siegmund says. “In doing so, we are looking at all the necessary steps to design and optimize such a process — starting with the basic design of the electrochemical reactor and specially adapted catalyst materials as reaction accelerators, right through to corrosion-resistant housing components and seals.” The scientists keep in mind that the reaction cell they have developed should also have the potential to be transferred from small laboratory scale to industrial size.

An important starting point in the project: the substitution of expensive precious metal-based catalysts such as palladium or platinum in favor of innovative precious metal-free catalysts. To this end, the researchers are using conductive transition metal sulfides, which can be produced much more cheaply and are less harmful to the environment. This catalyst choice is inspired by a high structural affinity of these materials to natural hydrogen-processing enzyme centers.

Another key problem facing the researchers: translating a catalytically active material into an efficient electrode. To solve this, they are developing and evaluating core components of the reactor — incorporating the catalysts produced — in electrochemical hydrogenation flow cells designed in-house.

“At the end of the project, we want to help establish innovative, sustainable electrocatalytic synthesis processes in the chemical industry,” says Daniel Siegmund, summarizing the intended outcome of the research work. “In addition, we want to close the development gap between fundamental catalyst research and process engineering applications in electrocatalysis.”