Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Fathers' Day!

My dad was telling me about this paper of his a few days ago, so I thought it'd make a good Fathers' Day post.

A standard job for industrial chemists is making a lot of some useful molecule. A problem they often run into is that their reactions only make a small amount of the desired product, and make a lot of waste. (If making the molecule is a multistep process, the amount of waste at each step can make the final product very expensive.) With a reaction Dad was working on as a postdoc at Kansas, an input molecule kept reacting with itself, leading to lots of waste products which happened to smell terrible.

Dad got the idea that the surface of silica gel had the right structure to hold the input molecule apart from others of its kind when the reaction was started, preventing it from reacting with itself. So he put some in when he did the reaction, and got very little waste. Later at a conference, two chemists working in industry publicly thanked him for figuring out how to do a clean synthesis of the desired product. One expressed wonder that silica gel, of all things, was the way to make it work.