Why should the world care about mechanochemical reactions, when we have perfectly good thermally, optically, and electrically driven chemical reactions?
One big reason is the potential for eliminating the need for costly, toxic, and wasteful solvents. Industrial chemical synthesis is a multi-trillion dollar industry that globally represents 7% of all income, producing nearly a billion tons of products each year. Within the ~ $1T sub-sector of specialty chemicals, reactions are largely carried out in liquid solvents, requiring upwards of 30 tons of solvent for a 1 ton yield of useful product, resulting in over 5B gallons/yr of costly and toxic solvent waste. Timely efforts in mechanochemical synthesis have demonstrated that many high-value chemicals can be synthesized with little or no solvent, sometimes with even higher yield than conventional synthetic methods! Thus, improving our understanding of mechanochemistry will provide monumental improvements in the economics and environmental impact of the chemical industry.
Beyond the impacts to chemical synthesis, mechanochemistry lies at the very heart of tribochemistry, which underpins the key energy loss and failure mechanisms at interfaces in sliding contact. In passenger vehicles, frictional losses in components consume 28% of fuel energy, and 66% of the energy in electricity generation is similarly lost to conversion inefficiencies. Design of mechanochemically-active lubricant additives is key to reducing friction and wear, which contributes to losses of ~$200 billion/year in the US alone. Thus, over its 13-year lifetime, CMCC’s findings will not only alter the vast chemical synthesis landscape, but could result in manifold improvements in energy efficiency.
The innovations developed by the CMCC will be fostered by collaborations with Dow and Eastman as industrial partners to translate our fundamental work into practice. In 2018, the EU Programme Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) funded the Action CA18112 Mechanochemistry for Sustainable Industry (www.mechsustind.eu) to foster sustainability via mechanochemistry, involving ca. 130 scientists (from both the academic and private sectors), across 33 countries in Europe, including scientists in 6 geographic areas beyond the European borders that are affiliated with academic institutions in USA, Canada, China, Russia, Mexico and Singapore. The CMCC is the first center level effort in North America supported through federal government funds to respond to the growing global interest in mechanochemical synthesis.