09-May-2022 - Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

New organocatalysts can compete with enzymes

Particular interest to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries

Organocatalysis not only provides an imaginable alternative to classical catalytic processes, but is even more efficient in many cases - and thus of particular interest to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

More than 20 years ago, Ben List and his Scottish colleague David MacMillan found out that, in addition to metal catalysis and biocatalysis, there is another general form of catalysis that is important for the selective production of molecules: organocatalysis. List and MacMillan were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that finding. Thousands of scientists worldwide are nowadays working in this field. Recently Benjamin List and his team have shown in a new paper that organocatalysis not only provides an imaginable alternative to classical catalytic processes, but is even more efficient in many cases - and thus of particular interest to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

When catalysts are used in a chemical reaction, the "lock-and-key principle" plays an important role. In order to produce a certain molecule without unwanted by-products, you have to find a catalyst that fits exactly. This is particularly challenging in the case of chiral molecules, i.e. particles that consist of identical “ingredients” but are mirror images of each other. Since the effect of these mirror-image molecules can be completely different, scientists usually want to produce only one of the two variants.

For a long time, large enzymes were the method of choice here, especially for small molecules, explains chemist Hui Zhou, who works as a postdoc in Ben List's team. The complex biocatalysts are suitable by their nature to serve as tools for such targeted syntheses, she says. The research team led by List and Zhou has now succeeded in processing small ketones, using much simpler tools.

The product is of importance

The resulting product is of importance because it occurs in the synthesis of active ingredients and is therefore quite useful for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. "Attempts have already been made in the past to produce this particular product, with metal catalysts, enzymes and other organocatalysts", Hui Zhou explains. But the selectivity had always been insufficient. Ben List and Hui Zhou have now succeeded in using newly designed organocatalysts to achieve a yield that is better than that of laboratory-designed metal, organocatalysts, or biocatalysts.

"We hope that our work will serve as an incentive for other scientists to create new catalysts," says Ben List, "organocatalysts that can definitely rival the high selectivity of enzymes."

Facts, background information, dossiers
  • ketones
More about MPI für Kohlenforschung
  • News

    How do we want to heat our homes in the future?

    The question of heating is becoming increasingly important in times of scarce resources and of global warming. Are oil heating systems still future-proof? Moreover, if so, can they be operated with efficient, sustainable fuels? Researchers are striving to make heating with oil more sustaina ... more

    New Method to synthesize Menthol

    Menthol and cannabinoids are important for the chemical industry. A team led by Prof. Benjamin List has now found a new way to synthesize both substances - cheaper and more efficient than before. Our toothpaste contains it, you can find it in cold remedies, and it makes our chewing gum tast ... more

    New Methodology for anti-Markovnikow products

    Vladimir Vasilyevich Markovnikov was a 19th century Russian chemist who worked at the universities of St. Petersburg, Odessa and Moscow, among others. The so-called Markovnikov rule, well known already with young students of chemistry, is named after him. This rule says that when protic aci ... more

  • Research Institutes

    Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

    The Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mülheim an der Ruhr, which was established almost 100 years ago, is one of the oldest institutes of the Max Planck Society. The Institute’s research, which is carried out by over 300 employees, focuses on the investigation of energy-efficient a ... more