Using Light and Electricity for Sustainable Manufacture of Chemicals

According to researchers, using light and electricity instead of toxic chemical reagents to activate molecules will allow the sustainable production of next-generation medicines and other ground-breaking products.

Professor Kevin Booker-Milburn at the 'Green Light for Chemistry' exhibit, (Image credit: University of Bristol)

A group of engineers and chemists from the Universities of Bristol, Nottingham, and Southampton, is getting ready to present their ground-breaking work at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition being held from July 1st to 7th, 2019 in London.

The “Green Light for Chemistry” exhibition will address the efforts made by researchers to use electrochemistry and photochemistry in continuous reactors to make the production of chemicals cleaner, quicker, and safer.

We all rely on manufactured chemicals to maintain our quality of life, whether they are pharmaceuticals to cure our illnesses, the agrochemicals to help produce our food or the fine chemicals and materials found in innumerable household products.

Mike George, Professor of Chemistry, University of Nottingham

Mike George continued, “But to keep up with demand, the search is on to find new sustainable methods for medicine and chemical production. Photochemistry and electrochemistry are inherently attractive because they use photons or electrons to replace the chemical reagents needed to activate molecules. Over the past few years, they have become ‘hot’ areas of research

However, their application to large scale chemical processes has been repeatedly hampered by a lack of suitable reactors. Our research consortium brings together chemists and engineers to devise new continuous flow reactors which can make large-scale processes accessible to all. Integrating these methodologies with smart recycling, the reactors minimize toxic chemical and solvent use while,” he further added.

The grant from the Engineering and Physical Research Council has enabled 26 industrial companies to sign up to a £6M project, Photo-Electro, to address the issue.

Visitors to the Summer Science Exhibition will witness creative hands-on demonstrations, using Lego, coffee pots, and red cabbage water, showing the principles behind the Photo-Electro group’s work.

Photo-electro epitomizes a forward-looking culture of sustainable chemical synthesis by a ‘reagentless’ approach. Visitors will see reactors no bigger than a large Thermos flask that can make kilogram quantities of chemical building blocks for drug-discovery. With little or no waste streams this illustrates how Photo-electro will contribute to the health and wealth of our nation in a sustainably responsible future.

Kevin Booker-Milburn, Professor, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

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