Ecocatalysis: Harnessing Phytoextraction for Chemical Transformations

Ecocatalysis: Harnessing Phytoextraction for Chemical Transformations

By Karlee Bamford, Treasurer for the GCI

What is ecocatalysis? I had never heard this term before until reading a recent publication from Grison and coworkers in the RSC journal Green Chemistry entitled “Ecocatalyzed Suzuki cross coupling of heteroaryl compounds”.1 In this work, the authors perform the familiar Suzuki cross-coupling of arylboronic acids (Figure 1) with heteroaryl halides. However, they use a thoroughly unfamiliar palladium catalyst: the common water hyacinth (Figure 2).


Figure 1. The general reaction for Suzuki cross-coupling  (Ar = substituted phenyl, thiophene, or indole groups).


Figure 2. The common water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). Credit: Richard A. Howard, provided by Smithsonian Institution, Richard A. Howard Photograph Collection (Montréal, Canada). [2]

In broad terms, ecocatalysis is the use of plant-derived, metal-based catalysts in chemical reactions. If it were not for the author’s graphical abstract illustrating the plant body performing catalysis, I would have assumed that this was a more standard bioinorganic paper featuring a plant extract as catalyst. While the propensity of certain plants and microbiota to uptake (“phytoextract”) particular contaminants has long been used in waste water purification, for example in the uptake of inorganic phosphates (e.g. [PO4]3-),3 ecocatalysis represents a clever progression from plants being used in chemical sequestration to chemical transformation.

Plants currently used in phytoremediation, that is, the removal of contaminants such as heavy metals from anthropogenically polluted environments, could clearly be used in the production of ecocatalysts.4 One current use for such metal-laden plants is in phytomining as so-called bio-ore.5 This metal extraction process ultimately results in the majority of the plant bio-mass being wasted through the energy-consumptive process of incineration, whereas an ecocatalyst such as EcoPd requires that same bio-mass as a kind of ligand support.

Grison and colleagues report reaction times, conditions, and yields (typically >90 %) for their “EcoPd” catalyst that are competitive with typical Suzuki cross coupling experiments and catalysts, both homogenous and heterogeneous. Remarkably, the primarily root-based EcoPd catalyst can be reclaimed and reused without loss of activity, as the authors demonstrated in a control study that involved recycling the catalyst four times over. Finally, the palladium content of the used catalyst can be quantitatively recovered by rhizofiltration, that is, by returning the elemental palladium obtained in post-synthesis work-up to a new plant specimen for metal uptake. In practical terms, this involves filtering the post-synthesis solution, dissolving the isolated solids with aqua regia, and diluting the resultant palladium-containing solution with water before reintroducing it to the roots of E. crassipes.

Ecocatalysis is an entirely new and emerging field of chemistry (circa 2013) being pioneered by Grison and coworkers at The Laboratory of Bio-inspired Chemistry and Ecological Innovations (University of Monpellier) in France. Their research has furnished several other noteworthy ecocatalysts (EcoM’s) featuring nickel (EcoNi),6 zinc (EcoZn),7 manganese (EcoMn),8 copper (EcoCu),9 which have proven effective in Biginelli, Diels-Alder, reductive amination, and Ullmann reactions, respectively.

This new approach to catalysis is not only charmingly novel – at least to a non-bioinorganically-minded chemist such as myself – but it also offers a real solution to the problematic dependence of catalysis on pure precious metals. The plants themselves provide a means for both harvesting and using low-abundance metals in a format that does not require complicated ligand design and is consistent with homogenous catalysis. Clearly, EcoPd and other such EcoM may not be suitable replacements in every metal-catalyzed transformation, but they nonetheless provide a new avenue for recycling precious metals and realising catalyst sustainability.

The range of possible ecocatalysts is, in my mind, astounding. Plant species that are known to preferentially accumulate heavy metals, known as accumulators and hyperaccumulators, are greater than 500 in number and sequester metals from across the p- and d-block of the periodic table, each to varying extents.10 As the tolerance and preference for certain transition metals is in part gene-regulated,11 it is conceivable that genetic modification and controlled environmental conditions could in the future yield heavy metal-specific plant species for sequestration and, perhaps, subsequent ecocatalysis.



  1. G. Clavé, F. Pelissier, S. Campidelli and C. Grison, Green Chemistry, 2017, DOI: 10.1039/c7gc01672g.
  2. Used with permission from Larry Allain, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
  3. J. Lv, J. Feng, Q. Liu and S. Xie, Int. J. Mol. Sci., 2017, 18.
  4. C. Grison, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 2015, 22, 5589-5591.
  5. R. R. Brooks, M. F. Chambers, L. J. Nicks and B. H. Robinson, Trends in Plant Science, 1998, 3, 359-362.
  6. C. Grison, V. Escande, E. Petit, L. Garoux, C. Boulanger and C. Grison, RSC Adv., 2013, 3, 22340.
  7. V. Escande, T. K. Olszewski and C. Grison, Comptes Rendus Chimie, 2014, 17, 731-737.
  8. V. Escande, A. Velati, C. Garel, B.-L. Renard, E. Petit and C. Grison, Green Chemistry, 2015, 17, 2188-2199.
  9. G. Clavé, C. Garel, C. Poullain, B.-L. Renard, T. K. Olszewski, B. Lange, M. Shutcha, M.-P. Faucon and C. Grison, RSC Adv., 2016, 6, 59550-59564.
  10. H. Sarma, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 4 118-138.
  11. S. Jan and J. A. Parray, Approaches to Heavy Metal Tolerance in Plants, Springer Singapore, Singapore, 2016.

Green Chemistry Principle #9: Catalysis

By Alex Waked, Member-At-Large for the GCI

9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

In Video #9, Lilin and Jamy discuss the advantages of catalytic reagents over stoichiometric reagents.

In stoichiometric reactions, the reaction can often be very slow, may require significant energy input in the form of heat, or may produce unwanted byproducts that could be harmful to the environment or cost lots of money to dispose of. Most chemical processes employing catalysts are able to bypass these drawbacks.

A catalyst is a reagent that participates in a chemical reaction, yet remains unchanged after the reaction is complete. The way they typically work is by lowering the energy barrier of a given reaction by interacting with specific locations on the reactants, as demonstrated in Figure 1 below. The reactants are represented by the red and blue objects, and the catalyst by the green one. Without catalyst, the reactants cannot react with each another to form the desired product. However, once the catalyst interacts with them, the reactants become compatible and can subsequently react together. The desired product is released and the catalyst is regenerated to continue interacting with the remaining reactants to produce more product.

Principle 9 Figure 1 - catalysis

Figure 1. Graphic of a catalyst’s function in a catalytic reaction. The catalyst is green, and the reactants are red and blue.

In other words, a catalyst can be thought of as a key that can unlock specific keyholes, where a keyhole represents a particular chemical reaction. One common example of a catalytic reaction that is taught in introductory organic chemistry is the hydrogenation of ketones (Scheme 1, also discussed in the video). The stoichiometric reaction involves the addition of sodium borohydride, followed by addition of water. In this reaction, borane (BH3) and sodium hydroxide are (formally) generated as waste. By simply employing palladium on carbon as catalyst, the ketone can react directly with H2 to generate the same desired product without producing any waste.

Principle 9 Scheme 1 - catalysis example

Scheme 1. Stoichiometric vs. catalytic reduction of a ketone.

While catalytic reagents appear to play an impactful role in the development of greener processes, there are always a couple points on the flip side of the coin to consider. For instance, a reaction employing a catalyst may not necessarily be “green”, since the “greenness” of the catalyst itself should be considered as well (ie. Is the catalyst itself toxic? Is it environmentally benign?). In addition, the lifetime of a catalyst matters; a catalyst can in theory perform a reaction an infinite number of times, but in practice it loses its effectiveness after a certain period of time.

Nevertheless, when these points are considered and addressed, the impact of catalytic reagents on green processes cannot be ignored. The production of fine chemicals and the pharmaceutical industries are just a couple areas where this impact is seen.[1] By focusing innovative research around the principle of catalysis, together with the other principles of Green Chemistry, we are moving in the right direction by paving the way to new sustainable processes.

[1] Delidovich, I.; Palkovits, R. Green Chem. 2016, 18, 590-593.

All Wrapped Up – Catalyst-Containing Wax Capsules Instead of Glove Boxes

All Wrapped Up – Catalyst-Containing Wax Capsules Instead of Glove Boxes

By Kevin Szkop, Symposium Coordinator for the GCI

What if you could do air-sensitive chemistry without a glove box or Schlenk line?

This is the idea behind the company XiMo, launched by Amir Hoveyda from Boston College, Richard Schrock from MIT and their co-workers.

Schrock, Hoveyda and many others work in the area of making carbon-carbon bonds.  The carbon-carbon bond is ubiquitous in nature, found in (nearly) every organic and naturally occurring molecule. The complexity of design that can be obtained from a seemingly simple chemical bond is unparalleled. The formation of carbon-carbon bonds is very important in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, food and natural products, agricultural chemicals, materials, and more. Notably, synthetic organic and inorganic chemists work together to design catalysts that are able to carry out this priceless transformation.

There have been many advances in this regard, especially in the field of coupling reactions and bond metathesis (the swapping of partners by a re-distribution of alkene and alkyne groups), both endeavours earning their discoverers Nobel prizes.1,2 However, a shortcoming in this field is the air- and moisture-sensitivity of the catalysts that need to be used for these transformations. The typical way of overcoming this problem is through the use of a glove box.


Typical glove box used to protect air- and moisture-sensitive materials.

A glove box is an essential piece of laboratory equipment to the synthetic chemist. By providing an air- and moisture-free environment, sensitive chemistry can easily be performed.
While useful, glove boxes are expensive to buy and operate, require a lot of inert gas (argon or nitrogen) to maintain a clean and dry working atmosphere, and a lot of upkeep is needed to maintain their successful operation.


In efforts to address these issues, Amir Hoyveda from Boston College, Richard Schrock from MIT, and coworkers have launched the company XiMo3, which manufactures paraffin tablets containing air and moisture sensitive materials. Using less rigorous techniques for the exclusion of air and moisture from the reaction vessel than a glove box, the organic chemist can simply add the tablet to the desired reaction. The tablets will release their contents in the reaction solvent under mild heating conditions. Therefore, even though precautions must be taken, the overall process eliminates the need for a glove box.4


Paraffin wax tablet

Many different factors affect the integrity of the paraffin wax tablets. The active compound must be able to dissolve in the reaction medium and release its contents under desirable conditions, it must be air- and water-stable, and the active compounds must be homogeneously dispersed within the volume of the tablet, but not on the surface. These problems have all been overcome since the company’s founding in 2005.

Some of the commercially available catalysts (shown below) are widely used in metathesis reactions for the construction of complex molecular carbon backbones.5,6,7 These reagents have been successfully incorporated into a paraffin tablet and show equivalent activity in selected reactions compared to the traditional catalyst in reactions performed under air- and moisture-free conditions.



Typical metathesis catalysts embedded in paraffin wax tablets.

The company’s founders hope that this new technology will speed up research and development endeavours, particularly in the field of drug synthesis. Bypassing the need for a glovebox, the paraffin tablets will allow a wide range of organic chemists to explore the rich chemistry obtainable by these air sensitive catalysts.



  3. XiMo Technologies:
  4. Chemistry World News, Oct. 2016:
  5. Koh, M.-J.; Nguyen, T. T.; Zhang, H.; Schrock, R. R.; Hoveyda, A. H.Nature2016, 531,
  6. Lam, C. Zhu, K. V. Bukhryakov, P. Müller, A. H. Hoveyda, R. R. SchrockJ. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 15774.
  7. T. Nguyen, M. J. Koh, X. Shen, F. Romiti, R. R. Schrock, A. H. HoveydaScience, 2016, 352, 569.