The scientists, from the University of Toronto, developed a series of techniques to create a variety of very active iron-based catalysts necessary to produce the alcohols and amines used in the drug and perfume industry.
The new synthetic methods promise to be safer and more economical and environmentally friendly than traditional industrial processes.
The scientists inexpensively produced varieties of alcohol with different biological properties – which can be used in flavor and drug synthesis – and different smells, a property important to the perfume industry.
The research takes advantage of Earth's extensive supply of iron – the fifth most abundant naturally occurring metal – substituting it in place of the rare elements of ruthenium, rhodium, palladium and platinum traditionally used in the design of hydrogenation catalysts.
The researchers say that the result is an exceptionally efficient class of iron complexes whose abilities rival and even surpass those of conventional industrial catalysts.
Global effort to be green
Robert Morris, a chemistry professor at the University and principal investigator of the study says the research is part of a world-wide effort to make chemical processes more sustainable and green by replacing the rare, expensive and potentially toxic elements with abundant ions such as iron.
"Iron is about 10,000 times cheaper to obtain than ruthenium,” he says. “And less than 200 metric tons of platinum-type metals are mined in the world every year, not all of it can be recycled after use, it is not essential to life, and it can be toxic."
"We found a way to make the ferrous form of iron behave in a catalytic process much more efficiently than a precious metal. We did this by finding molecules containing nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and hydrogen, that bond to, and enhance, the reactivity of iron," adds Morris.
The sustainable technology incubator GreenCentre Canada is already pursuing the commercialization of the new iron catalysts.