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August 22, 2017

Electrifying Catalysis: IKA Takes Bite Out of Apple to Launch Electrochemistry Product

Phil Baran (right) demos the ElectraSyn 2.0 instrument from IKA to eager attendees following his product launch keynote at the ACS National Meeting. [Kevin Davies]

  • For the past 12 months, the chemistry community has been intrigued by a slick (and expensive) promotional campaign sponsored by lab instrument maker IKA called “The Race,” featuring two organic chemists from The Scripps Research Institute, Phil Baran and Jin Quan-Yu. The campaign featured duels in motor racing and arm wrestling, leaving viewers somewhat in the dark as to what IKA was actually planning to announce.

    Now, the mystery has been solved in a special keynote from Phil Baran at the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting that had more in common with a Steve Jobs product launch than a traditional chemistry keynote. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Baran showed off his abundant stage presence while unveiling a new benchtop electrochemistry device from IKA—the ElectraSyn 2.0.

    Judging by the multiple cries of “Wow” from the audience as Baran unveiled the sleek device, and the mob scene after his presentation, the high-stakes unveiling was a success.

  • A Partnership with Potential

    The collaboration dates back to 2014, when Baran met the patriarch owner and president of IKA, Rene Stiegelmann, in San Diego, CA. Building on strengths in mechanics, electronics, and software, IKA decided to build a research center near Baran’s lab in San Diego, staffed with talent from Germany, the United States, India, and China.

    Alluding to the previous day’s total eclipse, Baran preached a message of sustainability and efficiency. “We have a desire to leave the earth as a more verdant place than when we encountered it,” he said. To practice more sustainable green chemistry, “there’s no better way than embracing electrochemistry,” said Baran.

    Dating back to the 1800s, Baran said electrochemistry was synonymous with sustainability, offering a vehicle to invent chemistry and reactivity that would not otherwise be possible, while reducing or abolishing the use of toxic heavy metal catalysts. “The cool thing about IKA is that electrochemistry is in [its] DNA,” said Baran. The field has “so much potential, but most organic chemists aren’t using it.”

    Baran’s lab wasn’t using electrochemistry routinely until a few years ago. Baran recalled work on the total synthesis of a marine mangrove swamp natural product, when a lab member turned to electrochemistry. Even harder than the experiment, “we had to find a student—Brandon Rosen—brave enough to set up the electrochemistry reactions.” That paper was published in Journal of the American Chemical Society, the flagship journal of the ACS.

    Several other examples showcasing electrochemistry steps in complex synthetic reactions followed, resulting in high-profile papers in journals including Nature and collaborations with groups in industry such as Pfizer. In one such example, the harsh oxidants used in a typical C-H bond formation step were replaced by electrochemistry.

    That said, frequent community feedback is that electrochemistry is time consuming and not easily reproducible, causing frustration and an over-reliance on chemical agents. This is compounded by lack of standardization. “It’s all anecdotal,” said Baran. “It’s like sitting around a campfire telling stories.”

    Baran humored the crowd when he listed a litany of requirements to set up an electrochemistry experiment. “You’ll have to go to Home Depot, eBay, buy a soldering iron … This is a high barrier to adoption … nobody wants to do this!”

  • Fume Hood Must-Have

    The new IKA ElectraSyn 2.0 instrument addresses most needs of a would-be electrochemist, including standardization (needed for global reproducibility); modularity (one device for 90% of electrochemistry needs); analytical capabilities; versatility; industrial design (“we don’t want to dedicate an entire fume hood to electrochemistry”); a user-friendly interface; and wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity to render the device future-proof. Finally, the cost had to be reasonable—approximately the cost of a stirring plate.

    The IKA promotional video came up with a nifty tagline: “A must-have for all fume hoods.”

    With a touch of Apple showmanship, Baran said he would be unveiling three new products: a world-class potentiostat, a device for easy analysis, and a stirring plate. The catch was that they all exist in one instrument. The ElectraSyn 2.0 represents the culmination of thousands of hours of engineering time, and “the first device designed for and by synthetic organic chemists working with the best chemical instrument manufacturer on the planet.”

    “It’s gorgeous!” Baran enthused. “I showed one to my wife; she agreed we could buy one just for the house!”

    A feature called SmartAssist will analyze user’s reaction before running to provide a baseline for electrochemical conditions. Later on, researchers can graduate to advanced mode. “This device will become better over time,” said Baran. “It was born and raised in California and is being manufactured in the USA.”

    Baran said his group had Invented a new reaction on the instrument, using nickel catalysis to assist in C-N bond formation, which is a foundational reaction for medicinal chemistry. Judging by the demo, the device is certainly easy to set up and program.

    While existing potentiostat products range in price from $7,000­­­–70,000, Baran said they were not designed for synthetic organic chemistry. “It’s like going to a Ferrari dealership and taking delivery of just the engine.”

    There were further gasps from the audience when Baran revealed the base instrument price to be only $1,399. “If your company can afford a stirring plate, you can afford the ElectraSyn 2.0,” Baran emphasized.

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