Uncovering the hidden paths in C–H activation catalysis
Winner: 2021 Organic Division Horizon Prize:
Perkin Prize in Physical Organic Chemistry
For the development of a unique approach for directly observing transient species and key bond-forming steps that underpin transition metal-catalysed C–H activation and functionalisation reactions.
Celebrate the team
A cross-disciplinary collaboration between the University of York, the Central Laser Facility and Syngenta Crop Protection has won the Organic Division Horizon Prize: Perkin Prize in Physical Organic Chemistry after creating a process that could make thousands of products more sustainable.Read more
Chemical catalysts are crucial in the preparation of a number of products, from agrichemicals to plastics and pharmaceuticals. As much as 90% of the products made by the chemical industry rely on catalysts – a manufacturing sector worth £18billion. However, a significant number of these processes rely on the use of rare or precious metals, which are expensive to source, but offer significant benefits, such as accelerating manufacturing time and lowering energy requirements.
The group developed a process that uses a number of methods, from infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, to give unprecedented insight into how these metal catalysts operate, being able to observe reactions on timescales from a trillionth of a second through to hours.
By gaining a new understanding of how these earth catalysts work, the group hope to be able to replicate their effectiveness using more abundantly available and sustainable materials.
Using spectroscopic techniques and the facilities at the Central Laser Facility, we could potentially unlock a whole range of different reactions that have industrial applicability – for example a substrate that will form a herbicidal product, or an intermediate to an anti-cancer compound or an anti-malarial compound.
The teamSee full team
Benjamin J. Aucott, PhD student, University of York
Joshua T. W. Bray, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of York
Thomas Burden, PhD student, University of York
Ian P. Clark, Instrument Scientist, Central Laser Facility, STFC
Francis Clarke, MChem student, University of York
Jonathan B. Eastwood, PhD student, University of York
Ian J. S. Fairlamb, Principal Investigator, University of York
James D. Firth, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of York
Emma Gozzard, CLF Scientist, Central Laser Facility, STFC
L. Anders Hammarback, PhD student, University of York
Jason M. Lynam, Principal Investigator, University of York
Matthew T. McRobie, MScR student, University of York
Stephanie Meyer, Visiting ERASMUS exchange student, University of York
Alan Robinson, Head of Process Research Chemistry, Syngenta Crop Protection AG
Igor V. Sazanovich, Instrument Scientist, Central Laser Facility, STFC
Michael Towrie, Head of ULTRA Facility, Central Laser Facility, STFC
Dr Jason M Lynam, University of York
Why is collaboration in the chemical sciences so important?
From my perspective, if you’re going to tackle big research questions you need a team of people with different expertise. This project is a good example of that.
The expertise we have at the University of York in inorganic, organic and computational chemistry for example, is enhanced by working with people who bring something totally new to a project. Collaborating with Mike’s team at ULTRA, for example, has shown how the time-resolved spectroscopy can be used to probe catalysis, and working with Syngenta has brought a different way to looking at a problem and what the challenges are in process chemistry. Collaboration is the only way going forward that the biggest problems in chemical science will be addressed.
What does good research culture look like?
It should be level. What I mean by that is everyone in the research team should know that they’re empowered to contribute to discussions, providing opinions and promoting debate. This should be in an environment free from fear of being wrong or being belittled. What we need is contribution, discussion and ideas. It doesn’t matter who is bringing those to the table, everyone in the research team should know that their ideas, options and thoughts are valued.
Directly related to that, having a diverse research team is important - diverse in its broadest sense. We need different people with different backgrounds to bring as many different ideas as possible to the table.
Professor Ian Fairlamb, University of York
How do you see this work developing – or what is next?
We’ve got a unique opportunity to engage with industry and real-world applications. The chemical processes we’re interested in are embedded within pharmaceutical sector, the agrichemical sector, but other areas of material synthesis as well. We’re very much drilling into the detail of metal catalysed processes and these reactions are well applied. We’re talking multi-billion-dollar sales across the world, and reactions that really make a difference. Using these techniques and the facility at the Central Laser Facility, we could potentially unlock a whole range of different reactions that have industrial applicability – for example a substrate that can form part of a herbicidal product for an agri-chemical company, could be the same or similar to an intermediate product that forms the basis of an anti-cancer or an anti-malarial compound (by way of examples). We should be looking at those types of reactions and processes that lead to those end compounds.
The other thing from an industrial perspective is they don’t fully understand what these facilities bring. Particularly the organic/synthetic side of the industry. They see this as a physical sciences technology, almost on the physics end of chemistry. They don’t fully understand what it can do. What we can do is bridge that gap and really showcase how the technology can be used to unlock greater understanding in chemical processes and catalysis. The win-win situation could be massive for both ends, from fundamental science right through to applications.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
For me chemistry has always been a wonderful hobby. That hobby has become increasingly serious as time has gone on. I feel it’s a real privilege to be able to do what we do. There are of course some aspects that are tough, but sometimes you must pinch yourself over what you’re doing. It is incredible and amazing to be involved in Chemistry research.
When we got notification of this award, I felt incredibly proud of the whole team because we have this freedom to pursue our ideas. You can have an idea in the middle of the night and jot it down on paper, come in the next day and talk to a student to see if you can inspire them, often with them taking on the idea and making it work or even better. For me that’s the magic of doing research.
The first thing I’d be doing then when talking to younger folks is to talk about that side of it – it’s the excitement to engage with your ideas as they develop. Of course, when you’re starting out as a GSCE student and then on to A-levels, your fundamentals start to build but you start to have ideas and connections and I would put across to them how big ideas can come from that platform.
By the time you’ve finished your degree you have real hypotheses you can test. Sometimes they might be bad ideas, but that’s good because you’re optimising and refining. It’s really important to inspire the next generation; explaining that journey that we go on. I think that’s really important to do and break down the fundamentals and show how it really applies to real world problems.
Michael Towrie, head of the ULTRA Facility, Central Laser Facility
How are the chemical sciences making the world a better place?
Chemistry is everywhere around us. The chemical conversions in photosynthesis, reactions in catalysis and in processes that drive all aspects of life from energy, health, food and environment. You might call many aspects of biology chemistry as well when you start looking down at atomic and molecular level.
The unique techniques that we have at the facility help us to understand what’s happening in these chemical interactions and reactions between molecules. We need this fundamental knowledge if in the future if we are going to deal with issues in the environment, CO2 emissions and global warming and food – all of the important global challenges.