Greener Catalysis

By Jessica Sonnenberg, Media Coordinator for the GCI

Some of the main objectives of the GCI are to get researchers thinking about and practicing green and sustainable chemistry in their own labs. Through educational programs, seminar series and workshops we have gotten our department thinking about green chemistry, but introducing green practices and research in the lab setting is not always straightforward. This month we would like to highlight several important inorganic chemistry discoveries that are beginning to change how the academic community looks at research and what industry is now starting to target.

Catalysis is ubiquitous in academia and industry; it yields most of the pharmaceutical products people take every day, generates the plastics and materials that go in to most commercial products, and is at the forefront of the energy sector. The problem with this ubiquity is the compounds with which this catalysis is run. The majority of catalytic reactions are done using precious metal catalysts, specifically rhodium, iridium, ruthenium, platinum and palladium. Not only are these metals very expensive, but their natural abundances are rapidly diminishing and cannot sustain our growing needs. Research groups all over the world have begun to redirect their focus towards the development of more sustainable base metal catalysts to address this issue. Complexes based on iron, cobalt, copper and nickel have begun to emerge in the literature as potential green alternatives. Not only are these metals significantly cheaper and more earth abundant, but they are also much less toxic, which is important when evaluating allowable trace metal impurities in final products for consumer use.

In order to make a real impact on industry, new catalysts need to be equally efficient, selective and stable compared to the well-established precious metal catalysts already in use, and this has proven to be quite problematic. Base metals are much smaller and have different reactivities than larger precious metals, and hence interact differently with the organic ligands typically used to induce specific reactions. What this means is that new organic ligand scaffolds need to be developed from scratch to specifically optimize the reactivity of these smaller metal centres to induce comparable activity. Progress has been slow, but some revolutionary systems have begun to pop up in the literature, including the most recent issue of Science, which highlights three new discoveries using base metals in catalysis. First is work out of the Morris group at the University of Toronto who used iron catalysts to convert ketones (C-O double bonds) into chiral alcohols, using catalyst systems that have been thoroughly studied mechanistically, which allowed for optimization. Next is the Beller group at the University of Rostock in Germany who used iron nanoparticles to convert nitro (NO2) groups into amines (NH2) using much milder conditions than conventional methods. Lastly, the Chirik group at Princeton who used high-throughput techniques to develop cobalt catalysts that selectively convert alkenes (C-C double bonds) to chiral alkanes (C-C single bonds). All three discoveries are jointly highlighted in a Perspective article in Science by Bullock at Pacific Northwest National Labs that is definitely worth checking out (doi: 10.1126/science.1247240).

There has been tremendous progress in the area of green catalysis, but much work is still needed towards the development of new systems, and improving known systems to make them yield comparable activity to precious metal systems. To truly make a difference, more groups need to turn their attention to this important issue, the government needs to step up and improve funding for green and sustainable research in all areas, not just catalysis, and the industry needs to start investing in the infrastructure to make changing to these new systems more feasible. The GCI will be elaborating on the importance of green catalysis in their inorganic session of our annual workshop in the spring of 2014.

The GCI Seminar Series: Bridging the Gap Between Academia, Industry, and Green Chemistry Education

By Jon Moir, Seminar Series Coordinator for the GCI

Since the inception of the Green Chemistry Initiative just over a year ago, and the beginning of the GCI’s Seminar Series in November of 2012, we decided that this month would be an excellent opportunity to highlight all of the truly amazing seminar speakers we have had over the past year. Since beginning our speaker series, the outpouring of support from experts in the field of green chemistry has been overwhelming! Education is our primary goal, and we are grateful for the ongoing support of green chemistry experts that are willing to share their expertise with the University of Toronto community.

Our first seminar was presented by our very own Dr. Andy Dicks, a green chemistry education guru in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. Dr. Dicks has been the driving force for the introduction of green chemistry principles and practices into the chemistry curriculum at the University of Toronto, and has won numerous awards for his pedagogical work and ongoing efforts in the field of green chemistry education. A later talk by Dr. Raj Dhiman, a graduate from the department, would highlight some of his experience working with Dr. Dicks in designing and implementing green chemistry experiments in the undergraduate curriculum.

To kick off the New Year in 2013, we were thrilled to have Dr. Philip Jessop, Professor of Chemistry at Queen’s University and Technical Director of GreenCentre Canada, present his research findings on switchable solvents. The commercialization of these solvents has been facilitated by GreenCentre Canada, an organization dedicated to promoting and scaling up new and promising green chemistry technologies. On that note, we were recently privileged to host Dr. Rui Resendes, Executive Director of GreenCentre Canada, at the Department of Chemistry in September. Dr. Resendes’ presentation focused on GreenCentre Canada’s ongoing commercialization successes, and how their work is helping to shape the future of green chemistry in industry.

Other cutting-edge university researchers and educators that have presented as a part of our seminar series include Professor C.J. Li from McGill University and Dr. John Warner from the Warner-Babcock Institute. Professor Li is at the forefront of green chemistry research in organic chemistry, and his work on water-based organic reactions has paved the way for a new class of synthetic organic pathways.

Dr. John Warner, CEO of the Warner-Babcock Institute, presented a talk in May as a part of the GCI’s Future Leaders in Green Chemistry Workshop. Considered one of the fathers of green chemistry, Dr. Warner is known throughout the world for his founding work on sustainable practices and the introduction of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. His unwavering support of our workshop was quintessential to its success, and his presentation detailed his experience in both industry and academia, highlighting the importance of green chemistry education throughout the chemistry community.

In addition to our many academic speakers, we have been very fortunate to host a number of industry professionals as well. Dr. Dwayne Matthews, CEO of Clean15, presented some of the work his organization has done on open innovation and networking between corporations and new clean technologies in order to improve sustainability. Representatives from NewAlta Corp. detailed their work on improving sustainability in the oil sands and helped stimulate an open discussion on how to reduce waste here at the University of Toronto. Dr. Mahmood Sabahi highlighted some of the green chemistry principles and practices his group helped to establish and implement during his time at Albemarle Corp., including case studies on new and more sustainable ways of mass-producing chemical products. Finally, our most recent seminar by Lyle Clarke, Executive Vice President of Stewardship Ontario, focused on the importance of the Blue Box recycling program in Ontario and the roles of companies in taking responsibility for their products (cradle to grave). An important takeaway message from this final seminar was the importance of chemists in shaping the future of product life cycles.

To that end, we plan to continue to provide an insightful and broad range of seminar topics in green chemistry, from both industrial and academic perspectives, in order to provide the necessary tools for members of the Department of Chemistry and the University of Toronto to help create a sustainable future. The knowledge provided by our speakers will help our graduates shape the industrial and environmental landscape of tomorrow, and this can only be achieved by sharing experiences and through green chemistry education. We are excited to move forward into 2014 and to share our knowledge with you, and we hope you’ll take the next steps with us towards a brighter and more sustainable future!