Developing an electrochemical reactor

Recently there has been a significant up-surge in the use of electrochemistry for carrying out a range of different transformations. The advantages are clear; no need to use messy, expensive and often hazardous oxidising or reducing agents, simply pass a current through your solution and let the electrons shuffle around by themselves. Flow chemistry is also ideally suited for electrochemistry; small flow channels mean that the electrode separation is short so very little electrolyte, if any, is needed to allow the current to flow.

Now here’s the thing, electrochemistry was always a technique that slipped a little under my radar. When I was training, it was the preserve of a select few groups, with complicated home-built reactors, electrodes and power supplies and so forth. It always seemed to me to be a short-cut to a fairly hefty zap that left you looking like Doc Brown from Back To The Future! Recently however, Vapourtec have joined forces with Prof. Thomas Wirth from Cardiff University and started to develop our own continuous flow electrochemical reactor. I consider myself very lucky that I work with some truly talented engineers, because even the prototype is better than most commercially available reactors.

I’ve been using it for several weeks now, and after only a few minor modifications it’s an impressive piece of equipment. It’s able to operate at pressure, it takes less than a minute to change electrodes, changing the current and maximum permitted voltage is trivial and our test reactions have shown essentially complete conversions with clean products. All in all, it’s been very exciting; the advantages of electrochemistry are clear and right now, I can’t wait to get hold of the next prototype and start looking at some more complicated syntheses.