Column: Bench Monkey
Dylan Stiles casts a sceptical eye over some new-fangled ideas
How many times have you picked up a chemistry journal to read about something nifty and new, tucked it away in the back of your mind, then never heard about it again? The science world is full of smart people churning out good ideas. Tributaries of innovation pour into the vast ocean of The Literature, but very little floats to the top.
Many ideas sink because although they look great on paper, they fall short in reality. It's easy to brag that a new reagent is 'green' and can be recycled, obscuring the fact that some exotic piece of hardware is required. Fluorous reagents and catalysts are conceptually pretty cool, and can indeed be easily recovered - but you need designer chromatography columns (sold separately).
Encapsulated catalysts offer the convenience of a teabag, but while reusable teabags are appealing, the average chemist who just wants to try a simple reaction is more likely to turn to something familiar. And let's face it, some folks are just too lazy to go through the trouble of recovering a reagent, at least on a small scale. Likewise, ionic liquids might be fancy reusable solvents, but the recovery work can look pretty unappealing.
A new method in chemistry might fail because of safety concerns. No matter how good the underlying science, a reaction that only works in hexamethylphosphoramide (HMPA is a highly-toxic solvent) will never be used in medicinal chemistry. Industry types are reluctant to perform large-scale reactions with diazomethane, oxygen gas, or anything else that's likely to explode. Even the temperature of a reaction can be a factor: on a large scale it's a lot more expensive to cool something down than to heat it up.
Cost and availability are also factors, with reagents or ligands less likely to catch on if they're tricky to get hold of. Industrial chemists may not be able to prepare it because of safety regulations, while academics may be prevented by laziness. Again.
Even for materials that can be bought from a catalogue, the supply/demand curve can play a role. Phosphazenes are a class of ultra-strong organic bases, and they can work magic in nettlesome reactions. But they're too expensive to be a common item in the lab.
Sell, sell, sell
To raise demand for their ideas, one outlet for chemists to advertise their work is the Organic Syntheses collection. Contributors give idiot-proof instructions for how to make a bucket of some chemical, hoping the reader will swoon.
But disappointment and rejection can arise when something doesn't work as advertised. In journals, authors invariably glorify their research regardless of its true merit. Euphemisms abound, and a good wordsmith can paint a sunny picture of just about anything. Of course that's just the way the science world works. Would any article get published if it were brutally honest about its shortcomings and limitations? If so, how would the field of sulfur chemistry get on?
It takes a shrewd eye for embellishment to read between the lines. But the system has a way of eventually working out the kinks, and it's usually just a matter of time before exaggerated claims are exposed.
But sometimes a real, honest-to-goodness gem simply slips through the cracks. I can think of a dozen occasions where a 'new' reaction that made headlines turned out to have been reported 30 years ago, in an Eastern European country that no longer exists. Get a translation dictionary, crack open an old journal, and you might find a gold nugget that time forgot.
Dylan Stiles is a PhD student based in California, US