UC Berkeley researchers crack carbon-hydrogen bonds

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A group of researchers at UC Berkeley recently discovered a process to crack carbon-hydrogen bonds, allowing for the exploration of new molecules.

After decades of research working with carbon-hydrogen bonds, the researchers unexpectedly discovered a new chemical catalyst about a year ago, which allows for reactions to occur much more easily at these extremely strong bonds. Carbon-hydrogen bonds are the most common chemical bond in nature, but their structure has typically made it very difficult to modify them, according to John Hartwig, a co-author of the study.

According to Hartwig, with this new catalyst, reactions at carbon-hydrogen bonds can occur at rates 50 to 100 times faster than previously possible, allowing processes that would formerly take hours to be completed within minutes.

“What we did was define a chemical that would allow for a reaction at the strongest and least reactive of those carbon-hydrogen bonds, to enable the creation of new types of molecules,” Hartwig said.

Previous attempts at performing reactions on carbon-hydrogen bonds were not only slow but also more expensive, as they required large amounts of the precious material iridium, Hartwig said. This catalyst, however, can attain faster reactions using much less iridium, according to Erik Romero, another contributor to the research.

This cheaper method of performing reactions on carbon-hydrogen bonds is valuable because it allows for research to be done with new molecules far more easily, Romero added.

“The products that can be made from these reactions can really be transformed into any one of a vast number of functional groups, with applications in material science, medicine, academics and industry,” Romero said.

By using the reactions enabled by this catalyst to create molecules, Hartwig said, researchers could potentially create types of plastic, more sustainable agrochemicals and new medicinal drugs. By experimenting with new molecules in a similar process, researchers were able to discover a new drug to treat HIV/AIDS, Hartwig added.

Going forward, the researchers aim to enhance the reactivity of the process even further, according to Romero. The conditions under which the reaction is possible are not conducive to creating many types of molecules, Romero added, so the researchers intend to develop more effective catalysts that can work under a broader variety of conditions.

“We are very interested in finding out why this new catalyst is so much better than others,” said Raphael Oeschger, a co-author of the research, in an email. “Once we know why this catalyst is so special we will probably be able to rationally design an even better version of it.” 

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.