Saturday, November 15, 2014

Exceeding Nature

The scheme belongs to a recent chemistry paper entitled "Nonmetal Catalyzed Hydrogenation Of Carbonyl Compounds" which I think shows significant advancement in chemistry. For the non-chemist, I'll unpack the title.

You may not be interested in hydrogenation, but hydrogenation is interested in you: it feeds you. The metal-catalyzed hydrogenation of vegetable oils is big business. You may have gotten away from trans-fats, but are you free of cis-fats?  How about saturated fats? The food industry uses hydrogen and metals like nickel to hydrogenate food stuffs. And then there is the "hydrogenation" of nitrogen to make fertilizer.

What these guys in London did is remarkable because they used hydrogen (H2) to make alcohols (top right) from ketones (top left). And they used only C, H, O, B, and F atoms, spatially arranged as shown. No metals.

Nature has little use for H2, the simplest of molecules. Relatively little free H2 exists on earth. There is a class of enzymes called hydrogenases, but guess what? They use metals to activate H2. So this work goes above and beyond Nature itself.