Solving chemical conundrums

A new research centre is being established at the University of Washington with the aim of finding better ways of manipulating the strong chemical bonds found in many materials.

A new research centre is being established at the University of Washington with the aim of finding easier, more powerful and more environmentally friendly ways of manipulating the strong chemical bonds found in most materials.

The results could provide consumers with a host of less-expensive products created in ways that use less energy and produce fewer undesirable by-products.

The Center for Activation and Transformation of Strong Bonds is one of the first three chemical bonding centres established by the US National Science Foundation as a means of seeking solutions to major problems in chemistry. Besides the UW, the centres will be at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

NSF said recently that it will provide each of the centres with $1.5 million for the first three years, and each could receive $2 million to $3 million a year for up to five more years. After that, the grants could be renewed for another five years.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out better ways to convert one chemical to another. If we can do that, we can make much better use of our resources,” said Karen Goldberg, a UW chemistry professor who is director of the strong bonds centre.

Many methods used to break strong chemical bonds are so harsh that other bonds in the molecule, often weaker ones, are broken too. The centre’s goal is to find ways to break selected bonds but not others, then form new bonds to other elements to create new compounds.

For example, the UW centre will look for better ways to break the strong carbon-hydrogen bond in methane, the major component in natural gas, to transform it into liquid fuels such as methanol and into other chemicals. Methane is very common, Goldberg said, but it often is found in large quantities in very remote places. Transforming it to liquid methanol would allow it to be moved easily to where it can be used.

There are many other potential applications, she said. The centre will focus on developing new basic understanding for how to selectively transform strong chemical bonds and applying that understanding to improve existing processes and create new ones. That could prove valuable for using inexpensive, readily available and less-hazardous raw materials to make new and existing products with fewer and less harmful by-products. The same processes also might be useful for, among other things, synthesising pharmaceuticals, plastics and materials for electronics.

“There’s been a lot of work in the last 20 to 30 years on the problem of how to activate and transform strong bonds. In many cases, people have been able to activate various bonds but they haven’t been able to go to the next step and make useful products,” Goldberg said.

“Many individual researchers have tried to attack certain aspects of this problem, but this is too big a problem for one scientist working alone,” she said. “With a group of us working together, the centre is a great opportunity to make real progress.”