Nature writ large is filled with examples of transformative chemical reactions that take place in the solid state -- minerals found deep underground or on the surface of the earth that undergo chemical reactions over time when they are subjected to the right mix of environmental conditions.
The same cannot always be said for synthetic chemistry at the industrial scale. Factories that make pharmaceutical drugs and ore processing plants where precious metals are extracted from mined minerals tend to rely not on solids but solution chemistry -- mixing salts or rocks with large volumes of often highly corrosive or toxic liquids to achieve chemical reactions and extract useful products. Those solvents, besides being expensive, often corrosive, and sometimes toxic to the environment, may be dangerously volatile -- even explosive.
Now a team of researchers led by Tomislav Friščić, a professor at McGill University, is developing new approaches to chemical synthesis and mineral processing based on solid-state chemistry -- and inspired by examples from nature.
At the 23rd Congress and General Assembly of the International Union of Crystallography, held August 5-12, 2014 in Montreal, Friščić will describe some of his unconventional approaches and how they promise better, safer and far less expensive methods for extracting metals from mineral ores as well as for the scalable synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs.
"You can use solid-state chemistry to make these materials much easier and cheaper, without the use of aggressive solvents or high temperatures," Friščić said.
Some of his favorite laboratory techniques include pounding materials with steel balls and leaving reactants to sit for days in swampy air. "We are trying to mimic what nature does," he said.
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