The research team of chemist Miriam Unterlass has succeeded in producing organic and inorganic substances in a single process in an environmentally friendly way.
The production of chemical substances normally requires environmentally harmful solvents. After the research group of Miriam Unterlass, professor of solid state chemistry at the University of Konstanz, first produced organic substances without harmful substances by heating them in hot water, the researchers can now achieve another success: through hydrothermal synthesis they have managed to combine form and combine organic and inorganic substances in the same reaction vessel. Specific: An inorganic solid that encloses organic dye molecules. When exposed to light, which is generally the most environmentally friendly energy source, the hybrid material functions as a catalyst, i.e. a photocatalyst. Since the photocatalyst is a solid, it can be used multiple times.
The study was recently published online by the Journal of Materials Chemistry A† In the next print edition of the magazine (issue 24, volume 2022), the research will appear on the cover page.
Hydrothermal synthesis, that is, the production of materials under pressure in hot water, is copied from nature. For example, in underground hot water reservoirs, rock crystals form when the atoms dissolved in the hot water react with each other, first forming molecules and then crystals. In the same way, inorganic molecules can be produced in synthetic chemistry – and as described in a 2021 study on the environmentally friendly process in the synthesis of organic substances by Miriam Unterlass – also organic molecules without toxic solvents.
Environmentally friendly synergy of both processes An environmentally friendly synergy of both methods arises from the current results, in which first author Dr. Hipassia Moura, a postdoctoral researcher in Miriam Unterlass’ team, plays a major role. Miriam Unterlass: “In our work we show that it is possible to simultaneously form inorganic and organic substances in ‘hot water’, and that something useful results from it.”
The fact that the hybrid material can be produced completely without toxic solvents is all the more remarkable because the chemist’s research team works with dye molecules that normally require highly toxic chemicals for their synthesis. The core of the new substance, which originated in hot water, is formed by dye molecules that exist as a solution, while the material around it has the properties of a solid. The result is a solid that behaves like a solution in optical properties.
Dyes as solutions have very specific properties. The dye molecules used by Miriam Unterlass’ research team can absorb light and thus catalyze reactions. This process is similar to photosynthesis in plants, where it is also pigments that absorb the light needed for photosynthesis. Unlike a solution that must be disposed of after use, the hybrid material has the added advantage of being able to be used over and over as a catalyst because it is like a solid on the outside.
The research team’s specific target for application are small organic molecules that play a role in pharmaceuticals. In principle, however, the method is relevant for various chemical reactions and thus for the production of numerous synthetic products. And while water still has to be heated for the synthesis of the hybrid material, only light energy is required for the catalytic effect. “Light is the best source we have. Light cannot be used up,” says Miriam Unterlass.
- Investigating the environmentally friendly hydrothermal synthesis of a substance with both organic and inorganic properties in one process
- Synthesis without toxic solvents
- The resulting hybrid material can be used as a catalyst that gets its energy from light
- The study was carried out under the START Y1037-N38 project and was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).
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