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This image shows the first-ever catalysis of a chemical reaction using an electric field.

IBEC and UB scientists achieve first-ever catalysis of a chemical reaction using an electric field

Researchers at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), the University of Barcelona (UB) and two universities in Australia have introduced a new way of catalysing-speeding up- chemical reactions by applying an electric field between the reacting molecules. This opens the door for the fabrication of of chemical compounds, used in pharmaceutical products and materials, in a fast and cheaper way, and could revolutionise the way we produce chemicals for daily life applications.


Being able to catalyse chemical reactions is essential, as it speeds up the reaction and thus makes it more proliferate – and therefore cheaper to use – in its many applications. Electrostatic catalysis (the use of electric fields) is the least developed form of catalysis in synthetic chemistry, because electrostatic effects are strongly directional. The researchers in Spain and Australia overcame this by using state-of-the-art single molecule techniques that are based on scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM).

“Theory suggested that many chemical reactions – and not just redox (electron transferring) reactions, as is often thought – might be catalysed by applying an electric field,” says Ismael Díez-Pérez, assistant professor at the UB and senior researcher at IBEC, who led the study published in Nature today. “We’ve provided experimental evidence for this for the first time.” 

This novel nano-chemical synthesis approach involves joining individual molecules to create new molecular backbones just like snapping “Legos” together, and might lead us to more efficient methods for the synthesis of challenging chemical compounds.

“Using external electric fields as the ‘catalyst’ in this way means that the synthesis of molecules that otherwise might not occur in a feasible way in laboratories or large industrial facilities can be achieved”, adds Nadim Darwish, a Marie Curie Research Fellow at IBEC and UB. “This opens the door for future chemical technology.”


• Reference article:
Albert C. Aragonès, Naomi L. Haworth, Nadim Darwish, Simone Ciampi, Nathaniel J. Bloomfield, Gordon G. Wallace, Ismael Díez-Pérez & Michelle L. Coote. Electrostatic catalysis of a Diels–Alder reaction. Nature, març de 2016. Doi:10.1038/nature16989