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Newly discovered chemical reaction could streamline production of pharmaceuticals, other compounds

July 24, 2013
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University of Texas researchers have discovered a new chemical reaction that could help lower the cost and streamline the manufacture of compounds ranging from agricultural chemicals to pharmaceuticals.

The reaction resolves a long-standing challenge in organic chemistry in creating phenolic compounds from aromatic hydrocarbons quickly and cheaply.

Phenolic compounds, or phenols, are broadly used as disinfectants, fungicides and drugs to treat many ailments such as Parkinson’s disease. Creating a phenol seems deceptively simple. All it requires is replacing a hydrogen molecule on an aromatic hydrocarbon with an oxygen molecule.

“This is a chemical transformation that is underdeveloped and at the same time pivotal in the production of many chemicals important to life as we know it,” said Dionicio Siegel, an assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.

The secret that Siegel and his colleagues discovered is a substance called phthaloyl peroxide. This chemical was studied in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it has been largely ignored during the intervening years.

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The scientists were conducting basic studies on phthaloyl peroxide, building on previous research, and decided to use it to tackle the age-old problem of transforming aromatic hydrocarbons into phenols.

The advantage to using phthaloyl peroxide is that the reaction does not require the use of acids or catalysts to work, and it can add oxygen to a wide variety of starting materials.

“There are no special conditions,” said Siegel. “You just combine the reagents, mix them and go. It’s very simple and straight forward.”

The paper describing this discovery was published last week in Nature.

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