Small changes mean big effects for designer catalysts

Small changes mean big effects for designer catalysts


Designer materials could soon be acting as their own catalyst

Scottish researchers are closer to understanding the importance of design in synthetic systems where the reaction product also acts as the catalyst. Understanding these so-called ’magic catalysts’, could lead to their development into specific, high-value products.

The method uses a process known as self-replication where the reaction product acts selectively as a template for its own formation; the reaction is also catalytic. By exploiting this synthetic process it is possible to select the required product in an environment where several, unwanted, products could potentially be formed.

In this systematic study, Douglas Philp and colleagues from the centre for biomolecular sciences at the University of St Andrews, have studied the effect of small structural changes for a system based on a Diels-Alder reaction.

Surprisingly, by making only simple structural modifications the behaviour of a self-replicating system is altered dramatically. By changing only the position of a CH2 group, that forms part of the product backbone, the self-replicating behaviour is stopped. In short, design is of utmost importance. 
The group is currently working on more ambitious projects to select the desired product during a chain of three different reactions. This is quite a challenge, considering that many unwanted products could also be formed along the way. However, the team is optimistic and hopes to publish results in this area shortly.

This technique is complex and a lot of time is needed to optimise each system’s efficiency, making it unlikely that these systems will be used for everyday reactions in industry. However, within five years or so, these systems ’may be used for designer polymers or high value materials applications,’ suggests Philp.

Vikki Allen