The chemical industry produces not just valuable vitamins, pharmaceuticals, flavours and pesticides, but often a large amount of waste, too. This is particularly true of pharmaceutical and fine-chemical production, where the volume of desired product may be just a fraction of the volume of waste and unsaleable by-products of synthesis.
One reason for this is that many chemical reactions make use of catalysts in dissolved form, as Javier Pérez-Ramírez, Professor of Catalysis Engineering, says. Catalysts are substances that accelerate a chemical reaction. In the case of dissolved catalysts, it often takes a huge amount of effort to separate them from the solvent and from the reaction products for reuse. Catalysts in solid form avoid this problem altogether.
Pérez-Ramírez and his group have now collaborated with other European scientists and an industry partner to develop just such a solid catalyst for a major chemical reaction, as the researchers report in the magazine
. Their catalyst is a molecular lattice composed of carbon and nitrogen atoms (graphitic carbon nitride) that features cavities of atomic dimensions into which the researchers placed palladium atoms.
Efficient catalyst for a Nobel-prizewinning reaction
By making tiny particles of this palladium-carbon-nitrogen material, the scientists were able to show that it catalyses what is known as the Suzuki reaction very efficiently. “In chemistry, forming a bond between two carbon atoms is often done using the Suzuki reaction,” says Sharon Mitchell, a scientist in Pérez-Ramírez’s lab. It was this reaction that won Japanese scientist Akira Suzuki and two colleagues the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2010.