Static Electricity Controls Reactions

Read Time: 3 minutes

Remember when you used to rub a balloon against someone’s hair and the balloon would stick to them? How about when you pulled off your wooly winter clothes and your hair stood straight up? Or better yet, when you shuffled your socks along the carpet, reached out to your friend and gave them a good shock?  All of these happen thanks to static electricity.

As it turns out, the fun doesn’t have to stop when you grow up. Scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) have discovered that static electricity isn’t just good for shocking your friends — it can control chemical reactions, too!

What the Process Is

Chemical reactions, you say? What are those? When chemicals mix with each other, they yield a chemical change by way of “products,” or the results of the mixing. The products of a reaction are separate from the reactants, or the chemicals that went into the initial chemical reaction.

The scientists are controlling reactions by using static electricity using something called an electric field catalyst.

A catalyst is a force that speeds up a reaction. Normally, rare chemicals are used as catalysts, but they have downsides. They’re expensive, they can contaminate the products and they can add unwanted by-products to the results of the reaction.

By placing the reagents so they’re aligned with the electric field, the field stimulates the chemical reaction.

Tests Look Good

The ANU team tested the electric field catalyst on the Diels-Alder reaction, a common chemical reaction. The reaction is used to make a variety of chemicals, most notably cortisone, a drug that suppresses inflammation. The rate of the reaction was improved by a factor of five — quite an impressive improvement!

In a statement released by ANU, lead researcher Michelle Coote said, “Nature uses enzymes as the ultimate catalyst, which can vary reaction rates by 14 orders of magnitude. Enzymes work with carefully oriented charged functional groups, held in precise orientations, effectively generating an oriented electric field within the active site.”

Coote had predicted that electric field catalysts might be able to speed up reactions, but this event was never observed before now. In regular chemical reactions, molecules always align in random directions within the liquid or gas.

The team developed a plan to test the prediction which involved placing all the molecules in the same direction. They then generated an electric field with the edge of a scanning-tunneling electron microscope. The field was used to test each molecule’s electric field polarity and strength.

Coote readily admits that making substantial quantities of products by using this technique isn’t a possibility. Coote told IFLScience, “You couldn’t apply a battery to a giant chemical reaction. The field strength will be too low for one thing.”

The Future Is Bright

This process has strong research applications: It will help scientists further understand natural reactions in a faster and more efficient manner. Electric fields can be rapidly switched on or off, and they exist outside the test tube of the experiment. Researchers will have more remote control over the chemical reaction.

According to the ANU statement, the breakthrough “could speed up manufacturing processes and allow unprecedented control of chemical reactions, for example in manufacturing flexible electronic components based on organic circuits.”

Coote also thinks that the success of this experiment could open up the potential of using electric fields, rather than light or heat, on self-healing polymers.

The team has defied the conventional line of thinking when it comes to chemical reactions, making this an exciting step forward in chemical research!

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Category: Chemistry

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.