Making the Manufacture of Chemical Products Sustainable

Junior Research Group

Electrochemical cell for the conversion of organic chemicals on a laboratory scale.
© UMSICHT, Alina Gawel

The junior research group "H2Organic" is working on a green electrochemical process under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Siegmund, group leader "Electrocatalysis" at Fraunhofer UMSICHT and post-doctoral researcher at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) supervised by Materials Chain member Prof. Ulf-Peter Apfel.

It all started with a competition. With his idea of using innovative materials for the electrocatalytic hydrogenation of organic chemicals, Siegmund applied to the "BMBF NanoMatFuture" competition for young scientists. The aim of the competition was to promote excellence in the field of materials and nanotechnology by providing young scientists with good starting conditions. A few months later, the confirmation: Siegmund and his group "H2Organic" can start their research in October 2021. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the project with around 1.8 million euros.

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. "Many manufacturing processes in the chemical industry cannot be described as sustainable even in 2021," Siegmund says, explaining his motivation. "Often they are directly or indirectly based on fossil fuels or result in potentially harmful by-products. These disadvantages can be minimized by innovative electrochemical processes."

For example, green power can eliminate the need for large amounts of chemical oxidizers and reducers 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.

Using materials research to create an effective electrochemical process

The focus of the "H2Organic" 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," says Siegmund. "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 always 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. Siegmund: "We are using conductive transition metal sulfides for this purpose, which can be produced much more cheaply and are less harmful to the environment. Incidentally, this catalyst choice is inspired by a high structural affinity of these materials to natural hydrogen-processing enzyme centers."

Another key problem for the researchers: translating a catalytically active material into an efficient electrode. To solve that, they are developing and evaluating core reactor components - incorporating the fabricated catalysts - 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 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."

The joint project "Innovative Materials for the Electrocatalytic Hydrogenation of Organic Substrates (H2Organic)" is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research under the "From Material to Innovation" program.