It is now possible for chemists to synthesize almost any molecule, but there’s also a push to make sure their processes aren’t destroying the environment.
One solution to this problem is to string chemical reactions one after the other in the same reaction vessel, says Mark Lautens, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. Also called domino catalysis, stringing together series of reactions reduces the number of separate stages, thereby creating less waste and using less energy.
“The message has been coming through loud and clear for 20 years or so that we have to do better,” says Lautens. “We have to protect the environment more, and we also have to get our hands on molecules more quickly.”
From pharmaceuticals, to agrochemicals, to space-age materials, there are countless innovations that need testing and manufacturing. Many new compounds are modified from ones discovered in nature, and chemists are working to understand how to alter natural compounds to give them new properties, and then test them to make sure they behave the way they should.
“Nature provides us with an amazing diversity of compounds,” says Lautens. “As chemists, you can tweak molecules and learn how different structure changes function. So that’s something that nature isn’t good at doing, and we really are very good at doing.”
Once a promising molecule has been found, manufacturing it requires sustainable chemistry. That’s where domino catalysis comes in, because the pathways first used to access a new molecule is usually uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste.
“Sometimes people think of organic synthesis like climbing a mountain,” says Lautens. “The first time you climb it, it’s probably not going to be the best way to climb it; it’s just a way to climb it. Our job is to show you the fastest and the best way to get to the top.”