Electrosynthesis in the UK – Realising its Potential
The UK has a developing and highly capable electrosynthetic community, coupled with an industrial base in materials and engineering has the potential to position the UK as a leader in electrochemical synthesis. The flexibility of electrochemistry to be a reagent-free, low carbon synthetic route in pharma and fine chemicals, as well as being the only credible option for the synthesis of green hydrogen, sees electrosynthesis cut across much of the UK Government’s Clean Growth Industrial Strategy.
To review this electrosynthesis activity in the UK, and discuss how electrosynthesis could be opened up to a broader user base a discussion group of leading researchers and industrialists was hosted by the Society for the Chemical Industry (SCI).
It was clearly identified that electrosynthesis can facilitate clean, low carbon synthetic reactions and that the flexibility of the technique reaches across energy, pharma, fine chemicals and carbon utilisation. The growing UK electrosynthesis community is taking advantage of platform hardware such as that provided by IKA, to remove some of the barriers to entry. However, lack of familiarity with the discipline, in particular the practical aspects of electrosynthesis, is hampering its acceptance in some areas.
It was recognised that with some additional momentum the UK could readily compete with the USA’s research effort. Looking further ahead, the prospect of the availability of large quantities of carbon-free renewable electricity is a major opportunity for electrosynthesis to play a role in balancing the grid. It was agreed that there many factors in favour of electrosynthesis at the moment, these include:
- The UKRI benefitting from the sustainability aspects of using low carbon electricity.
- A growth of interest in re-engineering production routes to existing molecules with patent coverage coming to end, with focus on safety and reduced cost.
- A number of flow chemistry conferences including more content on electrosynthesis, highlighting it’s growing importance.
- Providing an increased opportunity for the academic community to collaborate with industry.
However, in addition to these a number of barriers were clearly identified, which need to be addressed. These include a lack of awareness of the practical aspects of electrosynthesis as a methodology and that it is often considered a last resort. That there are still some limitations in materials such as membranes, gaskets and electrodes, and also that a large incumbent body of engineering hardware exists that is difficult to displace.
A number of R&I challenges and opportunities were also reviewed and discussed during the meeting and those which are considered critical to increased impact were identified as:
- Re-invention of the process to achieve increased operational efficiency and safety.
- New reactions, including shifting the balance of products of reactions.
- Process intensification, as current reactions are often performed at current die sites (rates) that are too low for industrial use.
- The role of electrode materials in reaction pathways, due to the recognition that the development of chiral electrodes would be a game changer in the pharma space.
There were several points identified as potential ways to address some of the challenges discussed and ultimately grow the profile of electrosynthesis. These are currently underway and include; reaching out to the fine chemical/pharma community to discuss the feasibility of a workshop in order to increase the profile of electrosynthesis, as well as encouraging the organisers of the Electrochemistry training courses to consider introducing electrosynthesis as a topic. There is also the opportunity to learn from the photochemistry community’s experience of influencing the pharma/fine chemicals sector.
The discussion group included:
David Hodgson, Managing Director TFP Hydrogen Products Ltd and Chair for the discussion
Pauline Allen, Chair SCI Electrochemical Technology Group
Alistair Lennox, University of Bristol
Alex Murray, Univeristy of Kent
Sheena Hindocha, Knowledge Transfer Network
Kevin Lam, University of Greenwich
Thomas Wirth, Cardiff University
Ben Buckley, University of Loughborough
Frank Marken, University of Bath
Richard Brown, Univeristy of Southampton