UC Riverside chemists transform acids into bases

UC Riverside chemists transform acids into bases

3:33 PM, 29th July 2011
UC Riverside chemists transform acids into bases
Guy Bertrand is a distinguished professor of chemistry at UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, US: Chemists at the University of California, Riverside have accomplished in the lab what until now was considered impossible: transform a family of compounds which are acids into bases.

As our chemistry lab sessions have taught us, acids are substances that taste sour and react with metals and bases (bases are the chemical opposite of acids). For example, compounds of the element boron are acidic while nitrogen and phosphorus compounds are basic.

The research, reported in the July 29 issue of Science, makes possible a vast array of chemical reactions - such as those used in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, manufacturing new materials and research academic institutions.

“The result is totally counterintuitive,” said Guy Bertrand, a distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who led the research. “When I presented preliminary results from this research at a conference recently, the audience was incredulous, saying this was simply unachievable. But we have achieved it. We have transformed boron compounds into nitrogen-like compounds. In other words, we have made acids behave like bases.”

Bertrand’s lab at UC Riverside specializes on catalysts. While only about 30 metals are used to form catalysts, the binding ions or molecules, called ligands, can number in the millions, allowing for numerous catalysts. Currently, the majority of these ligands are nitrogen- or phosphorus-based.

“The trouble with using phosphorus-based catalysts is that phosphorus is toxic and it can contaminate the end products,” Bertrand said. “Our work shows that it is now possible to replace phosphorus ligands in catalysts with boron ligands. And boron is not toxic. Our work is a quantum leap in catalysis research because a vast family of new catalysts can now be added to the mix. What kind of reactions these new boron-based catalysts are capable of facilitating is as yet unknown.”

Bertrand explained that acids cannot be used as ligands to form a catalyst. Instead, bases must be used. While all boron compounds are acids, his lab has succeeded in making these compounds behave like bases. His lab achieved the result by modifying the number of electrons in boron, with no change to the atom’s nucleus.

His research group stumbled upon the idea during one of its regular brainstorming meetings.

The research was supported by grants to Bertrand from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy.

Bertrand was joined in the research by Rei Kinjo and Bruno Donnadieu of UCR; and Mehmet Ali Celik and Gernot Frenking of Philipps-Universitat Marburg, Germany.

UCR’s Office of Technology commercialization has filed a provisional patent application on the boron-based ligands developed in Bertrand’s lab.

© University of California, Riverside News

 

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