University of Nottingham scientists have overcome a significant challenge for electrochemists - a way of probing right into the heart of an electrochemical reaction, a breakthrough that will help scientists understand how catalysts work and help create even better catalysts.

They were able to study the reaction at the point where the solution touches the surface of the metal electrode bringing in the electricity using spectroscopy under ultra high vacuum. 

Because catalysts, materials used to create a chemical reaction, are dissolved in a solution it is often very hard to understand why they work so well. Normally solutions evaporate almost instantaneously under high vacuum. The team overcame this obstacle by using one of the many room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs) — so-called 'designer solvents' which do not evaporate under such conditions.

Dr. Pete Licence in the University of Nottingham School of Chemistry said, "It wasn't easy and we had phenomenal problems. We could do the electrochemistry in the vacuum and we could measure the spectra of ionic liquids — but to do both at the same time has been a real uphill struggle — but now we have cracked it."

Licence and his team have successfully managed to integrate electrochemistry with UHV spectroscopy to allow the in-situ characterisation of interesting metal based compounds whilst in solution. They believe that their technique will allow them to shed light on the design of new catalysts for energy generation and efficient chemical production using ionic liquid based approaches.

Licence's research in the Nottingham Ionic Liquids Groupnfocuses on both the exploitation and manipulation of some of the unusual physical properties that are offered by alternative solvent systems, especially room temperature ionic liquids. His group is part of the University's DICE project, which brings chemists and engineers together to solve challenging scientific problems.

Licence said, "The implementation of green chemistry and sustainability are key concepts that run throughout both my research and teaching interests. The development of environmentally benign materials and products via efficient, clean chemistry is my long-term goal. As a result of this research we can design more efficient catalysts, new probes, sensors, functionalised electrodes. We really want to push this technology to see how far we can take it."

The results will be published in Chemical Communications and the article has also been featured in Highlights in Chemical Science which showcases news from across RSC publishing. 

Funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leverhulme Trust