John F. Hartwig conducts research on the basic functions of catalysis to develop more efficient catalysts. He is Professor of Chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley.
»We are still in the trial-and-error-phase«
Almost all technological progress relies on catalysis. From petroleum or renewable resources to pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and even materials like next generation plastics made from seed oil – all of these products need mol-ecules that are generated by catalytic reactions.
We invent chemical reactions with new catalysts to try to understand the fundamental rules governing catalysis. The catalysts we use in our work are based on transition metals like platinum, palladium, rhodium, or iron, and combined with an organic structure attached to the metal. These substances can be used to produce modern plastics or acetic acid, the basis for many chemical products from glue to aspirin. The application potential for these classes of homogeneous catalysts has grown enormously in recent years.
I have always been fascinated by the bridge between the tangible and the intangible. For the world around us, this bridge is a molecule's chemical structure, which gives rise to its colours and other properties. Designing experiments to understand reactions actually feels more like a game than work: it is fun, but we also learn a lot about the world, so we call it “science“. It's intellectually challenging and satisfying, and the information it yields allows us to address important issues such as human health or energy consumption. We're thrilled to find reactions we have developed being regularly used in drug discovery, for example.
As part of our Einstein research project, we conducted reactions at carbon–hydrogen bonds, which are normally unreactive. Most organic reactions occur at other reactive parts of the molecule. We used silicon compounds as reagents with iridium catalysts to induce reactions at the carbon–hydrogen bonds. The reaction generated large molecules whose function could help treat diabetes or cure HIV, or stop pests from decimating crops.
One long-term goal of my research is to be able to accelerate and streamline chemical reactions that currently require many individual steps. Getting to a single step is a very long process. Besides what I would call “chemical intuition“, it also involves a lot of trial and error. Can we get to a point where we can design a catalyst for a desired transformation through computational methods or on paper? We have a long road ahead of us. Right now we are still in the trial-and-error-phase, but we are slowly moving
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