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 at CSC2017 – The 100th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition

By Kevin Szkop and Alex Waked

This year, the GCI partnered with the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), the organizing body of the CSC2017, to be closely involved in various aspects of Canada’s largest chemistry meeting.

In collaboration with GreenCentre Canada and CIC, the GCI organized a Professional Development Workshop as part of the CSC2017 program. This event consisted of four components:

The green chemistry crash course, led by Dr. Laura Reyes. Laura is a founding member of the GCI, and is now working in marketing & communications with GreenCentre Canada.

A case study, led by Dr. Tim Clark, Technology Leader at GreenCentre Canada. The case study gave attendees a unique opportunity to learn about some projects that GreenCentre has been developing and in collaboration with peers, learn how to find applications for new intellectual property (IP) and how to make contacts within relevant companies.

Kevin CSC blog 1

Dr. Tim Clark leading the GreenCentre Canada Industry Case Study

Career panel discussion, sponsored by Gilead, featuring members of academia and industry.

A coffee mixer for an opportunity for informal networking.


Supplementary to the Professional Development Workshop, the GCI organized a technical session, co-hosted by the Inorganic, Environmental, and Industrial sections of the conference. This new symposium, entitled “Recent Advances in Sustainable Chemistry”, brought together students, professors, industry, and government speakers to showcase a diverse and engaging collection of new trends in green and sustainable chemistry practices across all sectors of chemistry. Highlighted talks included Dr. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham, also a CSC2017 Plenary Lecturer, Dr. David Bergbreiter from Texas A&M University, and Dr. William Tolman from the University of Minnesota.

Kevin CSC blog 2

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff teaching the audience about NbOPO4 acid catalysts found in Brazilian mines

Dr. Bergbreiter’s lecture was an engaging one. His enthusiastic approach to the use of renewable and bio-derived polymers as green solvents was captivating to both industrial and academic chemists.

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, a plenary speaker at the conference, gave a phenomenal talk during the first day of the symposium. His charismatic style complimented perfectly the cutting-edge research ongoing in his group at the University of Nottingham. Particularly interesting was the use of flow processes in tandem with photochemistry to yield large quantities of natural products useful in the drug industries.

Dr. Tolman’s talk was of interest to essentially anyone working in an academic environment, especially for student run groups, like the GCI, with both academic interests as well as safety awareness initiatives. In the first part of the talk, synthetic and mechanistic studies of renewable polymers were discussed. The second part shifted focus to student-led efforts to enhance the safety culture in academic labs, which stood out from most of the other talks in our symposium.

One highlight was a group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota organizing a tour of Dow Chemicals to observe the work and safety codes in an industrial setting, which they used as a lesson to bring back to their own research labs. This caught the eye of most of the GCI members, which inspired us to organize a similar day trip in the future.

In further efforts to make our symposium accessible to undergraduate and graduate students, the GCI partnered with GreenCentre Canada to award five Travel Scholarships to deserving students from across Canada to provide financial aid to participate in the conference.

We thank all of our speakers, both national and international, for their participation in the program. It was a great success!