ECHELON pursues a conceptually new approach: In order to allow the desired reaction to proceed, the competing hydrogen evolution reaction is systematically suppressed by increasing the overvoltage. New innovative cathode materials are thus expected to significantly expand the electrochemical window, allowing the technique to be used for a variety of other reactions that were previously inaccessible by electrochemical means.
Coating the electrode with special cationic molecules prevents protons from approaching the cathode and thus hydrogen evolution. In order to understand the exact function of these charged polymers as smart materials and, in particular, to design them optimally for electrosynthesis, extensive theoretical modeling of the processes occurring at and near the electrodes is required. This modeling, combined with computer simulations, includes a quantum chemical description of the electrodes using density functional theory, a model for the electron transfer process, and a multiscale simulation of the immediate vicinity of the electrode. The latter is important to understand in more detail the processes taking place there, such as diffusion of the molecules and ions involved in the reaction. The results from the simulations will then lead to the design of new electrode coatings (polymers) for electrosynthesis, while the experimental results will allow refinement of the theoretical models. This interplay between experiment and theory is critical to the scientific success of ECHELON.
The success of ECHELON will create new perspectives that will result in an enormous and immediate boost to innovation. The use of electrochemistry for the areas under consideration, e.g. cathodic deoxygenation under mild conditions, has so far been beyond any technical possibility. It has long been a desired reaction, opening up a wide range of applications, especially in the valorization of renewable (mostly highly oxygenated) raw materials. The direct material use of electricity in aqueous media will generate a wide response in academic research and industrial applications, as it is a highly disruptive development. In the future, this new technique could be used to synthesize active ingredients and fine chemicals, help recycle plastics (polyamides), and be used to deoxygenate carbonyls and alcohols. Combination with electrotrophic microorganisms (bioelectrochemistry) and use in electroenzymatics are also possible.