Greener catalysts with iron nanoparticles

A research team at the University of Toronto has announced the discovery of a possible ‘green’ alternative to commonly used catalysts in the food, drug, and fragrance industries. From the March 27, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

A chemistry team at the University of Toronto has discovered environmentally-friendly iron-based nanoparticle catalysts that work as well as the expensive, toxic, metal-based catalysts that are currently in wide use by the drug, fragrance and food industry.

“It is always important to strive to make industrial syntheses more green, and using iron catalysts is not only much less toxic, but it is also much more cost effective,” said Jessica Sonnenberg, a PhD student and lead author of a paper published this week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (“Iron Nanoparticles Catalyzing the Asymmetric Transfer Hydrogenation of Ketones”).

The March 27, 2012 University of Toronto news release provides a quote from Sonnenberg which suggests there’s still a lot more work to be done before the toxic metal-based catalysts currently being used could be replaced,

… “Catalysts, even cheap iron ones developed for these types of reaction, still suffer one major downfall,” explained Sonnenberg.  “They require a one-to-one ratio of very expensive organic ligands – the molecule that binds to the central metal atom of a chemical compound – to yield catalytic activity. Our discovery of functional surface nanoparticles opens the door to using much smaller ratios of these expensive compounds relative to the metal centres.  This drastically reduces the overall cost of the transformations.”

This work at the University of Toronto reminded me of another team also working on green catalysts for chemical reactions and also based in Canada, this time at McGill University. The McGill team lead by Chao-Jun Li was mentioned most recently here in a Jan. 10, 2011 posting where their ‘nanomagnetics’ technology to replace the current toxic catalysts  is described.

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