A disassembled diamond anvil cell.
(Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
Diamonds are pretty tough. How heavy? Strong enough that squeezing a few of them together in a molecular diamond anvil — a technique that is capable of achieving 100 times the pressure experienced at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — can be used to create custom molecules by means of the activation of the unique chemical reactions.
“Chemical reactions in the core of the contemporary society, from the creation of new drugs to fertilizer for food,” Nicholas Melosh, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, told Digital Trends. “Most of these reactions are carried out with the help of chemical substances or heat to drive the reaction. However, it has long been a goal to achieve alternative ways to perform chemical reactions, such as with mechanical force.”
In their demonstration, the Stanford researchers demonstrated that a first step in this direction by showing that rigid molecules can be used as “molecular anvils” to crush softer to the molecular component, which makes a response.
“This is a new idea,” Melosh continued. “It came after we had synthesized one of the precursor molecules for a different project. That molecule was actually one that can not respond with a mechanical force, but it has us thinking about the question of whether such a thing could be possible by the change of the molecule shape. After compressing a few different candidates in collaboration with a fantastic group who did a high press Stanford, Wendy Mao, we found what we were looking for: An irreversible electrochemical reaction is purely driven by mechanical power.”
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As noted, at this stage it is even more of a pretty tech demo than anything. But the work could have real-world applications. Melosh said that he hoped that the model can be applied to other chemical systems — improve the selectivity and the efficiency of the reactions. “We would like to develop mechanical approach for difficult reactions, such as CO2 reduction, which, while very hard, can have a significant impact,” he said. One day, it can be used to create custom molecules on-demand for use in the pharmaceutical sector.
A publication about the work, “Sterically controlled mechanochemistry under hydrostatic pressure,” was recently published in the journal Nature.