Public - an understanding of what we do
The synthesis of chemical compounds is central to science and the general public at large. The world demands the best healthcare, with the pharmaceutical sector playing a key role in providing antibiotics for common bacterial infections, to medicines that assist in curing life-changing diseases such as cancer. In brief, humankind relies heavily on chemistry and the world's future arguably more so.
The world increasingly demands more food, whilst wishing to use biomass-derived fuels, rather than petroleum-derived fuel. The agrochemical industry thus provides fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides to assist with this endeavour. The world also demands the best technologies, e.g. mobile phones, portable electronic devices or state-of-the-art televisions, many depending on the remarkable electronic properties of liquid crystalline display materials - again chemistry comes to the fore.
In all of these areas, the world expects that any agrochemical, material or pharmaceutical can be made on-demand, in the most sustainable and cheapest way. Sustainability, with its many meanings, is essential for future generations, moreover environmental resilience.
The need to provide cheaper agrochemicals, materials and pharmaceuticals for the world is clear. Our work looks to improve the way that chemical compounds are synthesised. We employ transition metal catalysts to do that job, relying on fundamental chemical understanding of how transition metals interact with chemical compounds.
One may say that we devising new technologies for the future benefit of humankind.
Transition metals like to bind other entities such as ligands, which alter their properties. It's like being able to change the colour dial setting on a TV screen - you can simply tune the dial to what colour you want. In our case, we can tune the metal catalyst to do what we would like it to do.
A transition metal complex that you may have heard of is cis-platin - see chemical structure opposite, which is a famous and successful anti-cancer drug. It exemplifies nicely that the Pt atom is surrounded by different ligands, in this case chloride (green) and ammonia (blue/white).
In other areas - in laboratories around the world - chemical syntheses are screened and optimised one at a time, in a single reaction flask - we also routinely do this! It is a labour intensive process and timeconsuming. Success is not guaranteed and the approach carries risk, e.g. it might take many years to deliver a commercially-competitive route to a compound, especially a complex chemical structure requiring several reaction steps to access it.
Robotic technologies are beginning to transform the world, with examples being the automotive and computer processor industries. We are begining to utilise robotic platforms to assist with reaction screening, which enables optimised conditions for a specific chemical target to be more rapidly identified. Thus, reactions can be screened in parallel, so that they can be optimised in an efficient way by altering common variables, e.g. concentration, temperature, solvent and catalyst type.
Pragmatically, reaction optimisation is a multi-dimensional problem, and one that current robotic technologies cannot solve alone. It is our view that to truly unlock the bottleneck in optimising a given chemical reaction it is necessary to harness mechanistic information, while screening reactions in parallel. By using established characterisation techniques, e.g. infrared spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, we can look inside the window of a given chemical reaction. This allows us to detect and quantify the chemical starting materials, product and side products. Moreover, any reaction intermediates that accumulate can be characterised. This valuable information, i.e. rich data, can be used to fully understand and optimise a given chemical reaction. We continue to work on these ideas.