Skip to main content

Emulating Nature: Reaction Diversity and Understanding through Asymmetric Catalysis

Final Report Summary - ENOLCAT (Emulating Nature: Reaction Diversity and Understanding through Asymmetric Catalysis)

Catalysis provides society with efficient industrial processes that minimise energy, waste and harmful by-products. Within this context, the main goal of our research is to develop novel catalysts and new catalytic routes to selectively prepare materials with desirable properties that may have medical and technological applications. We aim to provide bespoke catalytic solutions to problems of industrial relevance, some of which are being applied on kilogram scales, to generate key target molecules that will be of long-term benefit to society.

Catalytic chemistry is used to prepare structurally complex materials on a molecular scale, with the ability to synthetically manipulate and prepare specific molecular structures with defined properties the main goal of this research area. Catalytic chemistry therefore has applications that span the breadth of contemporary science ranging from materials chemistry to chemical biology. We specialize in a branch of catalysis where molecular complexity is often associated with “chirality”. What is chirality? It is the fundamental property of a molecule, or indeed any structure or object, which renders it non-superimposable on its mirror image. For example, your right hand is chiral because it cannot be superimposed upon its mirror image (your left hand); the right hand is called the “enantiomer” of the left hand. This property of chirality also has important consequences; we all know that a right-handed glove cannot be worn on the left hand! The specific branch of organic chemistry that my research group are interested in is known as asymmetric catalysis, and this area is concerned with developing methods for the highly selective preparation of a one-handed form of a chiral molecule over the other in an efficient and controlled manner.

We as synthetic chemists are not alone in this quest; Nature itself uses enzymes as catalysts for chemical transformations that are essential for biological processes. Nature’s catalysts are chiral, and can easily distinguish the right and left-handed forms of a chiral molecule. We design, prepare and engineer artificial small molecules that mimic this unique enzymatic selectivity but with broad specificity. Our research focuses within one specific branch of this area, commonly known as “organocatalysis”. This technique uses small, designer, man-made molecules to carry out selective chemical reactions in a selective and environmentally benign fashion that minimises waste. This proposal combines the fields of catalysis and chirality, and investigates a simple class of organic molecule, known as a Lewis base, for their ability to promote selective catalytic chemical reactions.