Chemical game changer

(Edmonton) University of Alberta chemistry researchers have discovered an active catalyst that has the potential to improve the efficiency and environmental impact of manufacturing processes used to make products such as agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Steven Bergens, professor in the Department of Chemistry, led a team researching the effects of different catalysts on organic compounds known as amides, which are raw materials used by many industries to make a variety of chemical products. The catalyst is a ruthenium-aminophosphine, which contains ruthenium, carbon, hydrogen, phosphorus and nitrogen.

“We found that combining hydrogen with this new catalyst transforms amides into a variety of desired chemical products—namely amines and alcohols, which are ubiquitous in chemical industry—efficiently, safety and without producing potentially environmentally dangerous waste,” said Bergens.

Bergens says the chemical reaction is considered “green” because the hydrogen can be made onsite, and any excess hydrogen from the reaction can be subsequently reused, or it can be used as a fuel producing only water when burned.  Even the miniscule amounts of metal from the catalyst can be recycled.  So far the researchers have pushed the experiment to produce 7,000 units of product from only one unit of catalyst.

In contrast, Bergens says the current, conventional method used by industry is unsustainable, requires expensive and dangerous shipping of tons of highly flammable, reactive chemicals by truck or rail, and “it also produces large amounts of waste that must be removed at added cost and threat to the environment."

Researchers around the world have been working for more than 50 years to find a catalytic system for this vital class of reaction that operates efficiently and produces little to no waste.

The work of Bergens and U of A graduate student Jeremy John was published Sept. 26 in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

“The discovery of a cheap catalyst with minimal and reusable waste is a game-changing development for the chemical industry,” said Bergens. "In the future, we can envision using this, or related catalysts, for reactions such as the selective cleavage of peptides or to break down nylon."