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Can static electricity make chemistry more efficient – and greener?

Making medicines and complex materials is messy and wasteful. Using electric fields as catalysts could make chemistry far cleaner

Technology



12 August 2020

IT ISN’T long after waking each day that we meet the handiwork of chemists. The flavourings in toothpaste, scents in shower gel, polyester in clothes – all have been created through the breaking and making of chemical bonds. The same goes for nearly all the materials on which the modern world relies.

It isn’t easy work. Take remdesivir, the antiviral drug that could help us treat covid-19. To make it, chemists begin with a small molecule called alanine and add a further 64 atoms to it over the course of 25 separate chemical reactions. Whew.

Making such molecular marvels isn’t just taxing, it can also be a grubby affair. Synthetic chemists spend most of their time amid pastes, powders and bubbling solutions: it is a messy and often smelly craft.

But perhaps there is a way to make it simpler and cleaner. More and more chemists are experimenting with a new tool of subtle power: the electric field. Not only does it promise to help us control the jiggling of atoms more precisely, but in a world where green credentials are important, it could also make chemical synthesis a lot less damaging to the environment. If this works, chemistry will be transformed.

To see why this new tool is so promising, we need to consider the thing that matters most in any reaction – the flow of electrons. We think of electrons as negatively charged particles that swirl between the positively charged atomic nuclei in a molecule, gluing the atoms together. The job of the synthetic chemist is to cajole this electron glue into flowing from one place …

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