Bringing together the powers of electrochemistry and flow technology

September 10, 2021

PhD researcher shows promise of continuous-flow microreactors for the sustainable production of chemicals.

Yiran Cao
Yiran Cao

The combination of electrochemistry and flow technology holds much promise for the sustainable production of valuable chemicals, such as biobased feedstocks. Researcher Yiran Cao has explored electrochemical organic synthesis in flow, and especially continuous-flow microreactors, a new and exciting field that presents several challenges. Cao defended his PhD thesis on Tuesday 7 September.

Electrochemistry concerns itself with the relationship between electrical and chemical processes. These phenomena always take place at the interface between two conductors, an electrolyte and an electrode.

It has several advantages over normal chemical reactions, as it allows you to perform chemistry with traceless electrons as reagents. This means less use of hazardous chemicals. It also gives you the opportunity to use green electricity derived from sustainable power sources, like solar and wind energy. It is also highly tunable and scalable, which makes it possible to produce valuable chemicals in a safe and sustainable way.

The promise of flow

When combined with flow technology (which concerns itself with the dynamics of fluids), electrochemistry provides even greater control over reaction conditions. The implementation of electrochemical reactions in flow, however, is much more complicated than merely pumping the reaction mixture into an electrolytic cell.

“Understanding the engineering principles behind the observations can help to exploit the full potential of the technology”, says Yiran Cao.

In his dissertation, the Chinese-born researcher has explored electrochemical organic synthesis in flow, with a focus on so-called continuous-flow microreactors, which can be used to convert biobased feedstocks.

His research involved several stages, from the design and verification of an electrochemical microflow reactor, the electrochemical conversion of furfural (a typical biobased chemical) into valuable chemicals in flow, to the transformation and acceleration of a gas-liquid biphasic electrochemical reactions into microflow reactor, and the numerical analysis of liquid-liquid Taylor flow regime.

Starting point

“It was my aim to combine organic chemistry and chemical engineering, which will hopefully serve as a useful reference and starting point for other researchers looking to translate their electrochemistry to flow”, says the researcher.

“While significant progress has been made throughout the past decade, moving forward is not without a challenge. The community should focus more on examples that provide decisive advantages, such as multiphase electrochemistry. This has remains largely underrepresented to date.”

One of the challenges Cao encountered in his research was the clogging-up of the channels, which, according to him, continues to be the Achilles heel of microreactor technology. Solving these issues undoubtedly requires collaborative efforts between chemical engineers and chemists from both academia and industry, he believes.

“I am confident that progress on these aspects will increase the utility of flow reactor technology and will push the boundaries of synthetic organic electrochemistry.”

Yiran Cao, Engineering Electrochemical Transformations in Continuous-Flow Reactors, Promoters: Timothy Noël (University of Amsterdam), Fausto Gallucci (TU/e). Other main parties involved: TU Dortmund, KU Leuven, Unive


Henk van Appeven
(Communications Adviser)

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