World's First Catalyzed Reaction Initiated with Inexpensive Iron Salts

Professor Joe Sweeney. Credit: University of Huddersfield

A new chemical reaction that is catalyzed using simple iron salts - an abundant, low-cost, and sustainable substitute for highly expensive and scarce metals - has been developed by researchers from the University of Huddersfield.

The study could provide huge economic gains in the agrichemical and pharmaceutical sectors, as well as more low-cost medicines for healthcare providers. The research has been reported in a new article published in the scientific journal, Nature Chemistry.

Patent rights have been acquired for the core reaction formulated by the Huddersfield researchers, and there is more ongoing research, with a further publication in the pipeline.

Also, we are keen to establish connectivity with companies, so we can get these compounds out into industry as quickly as possible.

Joe Sweeney, Professor of Catalysis and Chemical Biology, University of Huddersfield

Joe Sweeney’s fellow researchers and authors of the article include fellow members of the academic staff at the University’s Department of Chemistry, as well as competent research students.

Being a highly significant component in the chemical industry, catalysis has been estimated to make up nearly 40% of the world’s GDP. As catalysis remains under extreme chemical analysis, the breakthrough achieved by Professor Sweeney’s team proves to be of remarkable industrial and scientific significance.

Most of the catalytes that are in current use are so-called scarce metals such as rhodium, palladium, platinum or iridium. The advantage is that they are usually very active, so they can mediate reactions quicker and at a lower catalytic loading. But if you look at tables of abundance in the earth’s crust, these metals are all right at the bottom, so there has been a big push towards devising catalytic processes that use more sustainable catalysts, such as iron, which is probably the most abundant metal.

Joe Sweeney, Professor of Catalysis and Chemical Biology, University of Huddersfield

The new article published in Nature Chemistry provides a detailed account of a sustainable and efficient new iron catalyze reaction that could be a thousand times cheaper compared to an equivalent reaction carried out using highly expensive and scarce metals. An additional advantage is the fact that iron (a fundamental constituent in the reaction) is considered non-toxic.

According to Professor Sweeney, the new process is highly accessible.

A key driver of organic chemistry is that it should be practical and shouldn’t require esoteric conditions. Our process is carried out using standard apparatus in a standard laboratory at room temperature. That is kind of the benchmark for organic chemistry.

Joe Sweeney, Professor of Catalysis and Chemical Biology, University of Huddersfield

The research team is formed by experts from the important chemistry disciplines. Dr Nathan Patmore, an inorganic chemist, played an important role in the study. He helped establish the mechanism of the iron process.

PhD student Kirsty Adams, holding an organic synthesis studentship awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and Tony Lo and James Ryan, who were undergraduates at the time of research and eventually moved on to doctoral studies, were the other researchers involved in the study.

Dr Piotr Raubo, Associate Principal Scientist for oncology medicinal chemistry at AstraZeneca’s IMED Biotech Unit, is also a co-author of the new article. He stated that “This work is an excellent example of collaborative knowledge sharing between AstraZeneca and academic institutions. Working together with researchers from the University of Huddersfield and empowered with outstanding creativity of AstraZeneca sandwich students, we have delivered a novel chemical process, which through its potential applications can benefit wider society.”

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