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Chemical engines: driving systems away from equilibrium through catalyst reaction cycles

Abstract

Biological systems exhibit a range of complex functions at the micro- and nanoscales under non-equilibrium conditions (for example, transportation and motility, temporal control, information processing and so on). Chemists also employ out-of-equilibrium systems, for example in kinetic selection during catalysis, self-replication, dissipative self-assembly and synthetic molecular machinery, and in the form of chemical oscillators. Key to non-equilibrium behaviour are the mechanisms through which systems are able to extract energy from the chemical reactants (‘fuel’) that drive such processes. In this Perspective we relate different examples of such powering mechanisms using a common conceptual framework. We discuss how reaction cycles can be coupled to other dynamic processes through positive (acceleration) or negative (inhibition) catalysis to provide the thermodynamic impetus for diverse non-equilibrium behaviour, in effect acting as a ‘chemical engine’. We explore the way in which the energy released from reaction cycles is harnessed through kinetic selection in a series of what have sometimes been considered somewhat disparate fields (systems chemistry, molecular machinery, dissipative assembly and chemical oscillators), highlight common mechanistic principles and the potential for the synchronization of chemical reaction cycles, and identify future challenges for the invention and application of non-equilibrium systems. Explicit recognition of the use of fuelling reactions to power structural change in catalysts may stimulate the investigation of known catalytic cycles as potential elements for chemical engines, a currently unexplored area of catalysis research.

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Fig. 1: Driving systems with chemical engines.
Fig. 2: Chemical reaction cycles and kinetic selection.
Fig. 3: Dissipative systems fuelled by chemical reaction cycles.
Fig. 4: Molecular motors fuelled by chemical reaction cycles.
Fig. 5: Oscillating systems driven by chemical engines.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC; EP/P027067/1), the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant 786630) and East China Normal University for funding. We thank E. Penocchio, B. M. W. Roberts and C. Tian for insightful discussions. D.A.L. is a Royal Society Research Professor.

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Amano, S., Borsley, S., Leigh, D.A. et al. Chemical engines: driving systems away from equilibrium through catalyst reaction cycles. Nat. Nanotechnol. 16, 1057–1067 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-021-00975-4

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