Mechanics Meets Chemistry

A fundamentally new way of manipulating matter and driving chemical reactions has been heralded as a chemistry breakthrough by many in the scientific community. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a novel way to use mechanical force to alter the direction of chemical reactions which yields results not previously obtainable using conventional conditions.

Normally during a chemical reaction, molecules need to overcome a barrier so that they can be transformed into useful products. This is usually accomplished by adding light, heat, pressure or some electrical potential to change the distribution of the reactants moving them into a new excited state.

By harnessing mechanical energy, the researchers say materials would more easily be able to repair themselves or at least indicate whether they’ve incurred any damage. Up until now, there was no way to direct usual chemical reactions in a specific direction. The researchers used ultrasound to force a reaction to go in two different pathways and by modifying the volume, they were able to change the reaction’s direction.

Ultrasound and some other mechanical techniques have previously been used to redirect reactions before but not in this type of application. There is some debate whether ultrasound works by making electrical changes in the molecules in to create actual mechanical stress, but the results indicate that however it works, there definitely are mechanical forces going on.

Future chemists may be thinking about using mechanical forces to activate a chemical reaction but this is the first time ultrasound has been shown to create the stress needed.

The demonstration proves that it is possible to use a mechanical force in such a way that it can redirect a chemical reaction to travel along a designated path. The scientists are hopeful that these results will open up an entirely new thread for chemists dealing with synthetic materials can explore.

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