The new synthetic methods promise to be safer and more economical and environmentally friendly than traditional industrial processes.
The research takes advantage of Earth's extensive supply of iron - the fifth most abundant naturally occurring metal - substituting it in place of the rare elements of ruthenium, rhodium, palladium and platinum traditionally used in the design of hydrogenation catalysts. The result is an exceptionally efficient class of iron complexes whose abilities rival and even surpass those of conventional industrial catalysts.
"We found a way to make the ferrous form of iron behave in a catalytic process much more efficiently than a precious metal. We did this by finding molecules containing nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and hydrogen, that bond to, and enhance, the reactivity of iron," says Morris.
The scientists inexpensively produced varieties of alcohol with different biological properties - which can be used in flavour and drug synthesis - and different smells, a property important to the perfume industry. In one example from the study, the precursor alcohol to a cancer treatment can be made using the hydrogenation process catalyzed by iron. Using iron, the resulting complex is often a better catalyst than the industrial one based on ruthenium.
The sustainable technology incubator GreenCentre Canada is already pursuing the commercialization of the new iron catalysts.
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