Rice University synthetic chemists were inspired by light-sensing bacteria that flourish near hot oceanic vents. With this inspiration, they discovered a mild approach to develop valuable hydrocarbons called "olefins or alkenes."
Like the microbes, the chemists used vitamin B12, removing harsh chemicals usually needed to make precursor molecules important to drugs and agrochemicals.
An open-access study by chemistry assistant professor Julian West and his colleagues are featured in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Science.
Debatably, West said, these alkenes or olefins are the most helpful functional groups found in molecules.
The assistant professor, who was named one of the "30 Under 30 rising stars" of Forbes Magazine in the field of science, also said a helpful group is akin to a foothold in climbing. It lets one get to a place he'd want to go or do what he'd want to make.
A Mild Process, Goal for Decades
According to West, they've had processes "to make olefins for a long time" although, many of these classic methods, the latter part of the 19th, or the beginning of 20th century, make use of solid bases, things "that would burn you, and would certainly burn your molecule," if there is something sensitive on it.
The only issue, he added, is that such harsh occurrences might be able to make the said olefins, although they might be made in the wrong place.
A ScienceDaily report specified that a mild process that enables chemists to choose the functional form of olefin had been a goal for decades.
Relatively, the Rice process drew its inspiration from laboratories that detected metal catalysts to enhance the process and others that investigated "thermus thermophiles, light-sensitive bacteria" that flourish near underwater thermal vents.
According to West, they a lot of extraordinary rare or uncommon enzymes. He continued, one of them identified as carH, a photoreceptor like a microbial retina that developed on a similar evolutionary path to what led to the chemists' eyes.
How CarH Functions
CarH combines vitamin B12 and cobalt that respond with light and stimulates the development of an alkene, which, in turn, signals the organism to the presence of the light. Instead of requiring heat and strong bases, said West, it only requires light energy.
Besides, West explained, the alkene is only a "byproduct for bacteria." Meaning, it does not really care, although this cue could be taken from nature.
Essentially, as indicated in their research, the team of chemists used vitamin B12 and the cobalt it comprises with sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda, as a mild base to develop the olefins "under blue light at room temperature."
An astonishing aspect of the study was the presence of distant elimination by which they were able to position hydrogen atoms for the facilitation of further reactions. This, then, could result in two-step procedures for specific products.
Ultimately, the synthetic chemists found they could make olefins and not just have them isolated, explained West.
In a similar flask at the same time, he added, "we can have a second reaction and turn them into something else." This, he described, could be a plug-and-play approach where "we could start to stub in different molecules."
West also said his team is working on variations that could be scaled up for industrial manufacture of polypropylene and other plastics based on olefins.
B12, he elaborated, is a little too problematical for commodity-scale synthesis. However, he continued, it is great for fine chemicals, and it could be purchased from any group of suppliers.
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