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Coffee pots, Lego and red cabbage water turn the spotlight on ‘green chemistry’

2 July 2019

Using light and electricity to activate molecules instead of toxic chemical reagents will enable the sustainable manufacture of next generation medicines and other innovative products, according to scientists.

A team of chemists and engineers from the Universities of Nottingham, Bristol and Southampton, is gearing up to showcase their innovative work at this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (1-7 July) in London.

The ‘Green Light for Chemistry’ exhibit will focus on efforts by scientists to use photochemistry and electrochemistry in continuous reactors to make the manufacture of chemicals faster, cleaner and safer.

Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham, Mike George, said: “We all rely on manufactured chemicals to maintain our quality of life, whether they are pharmaceuticals to cure our illnesses, the agrochemicals to help produce our food, or the fine chemicals and materials found in innumerable household products.

“But to keep up with demand, the search is on to find new sustainable methods for medicine and chemical production. Photochemistry and electrochemistry are inherently attractive because they use photons or electrons to replace the chemical reagents needed to activate molecules. Over the past few years, they have become ‘hot’ areas of research.

“However, their application to large scale chemical processes has been repeatedly hampered by a lack of suitable reactors. Our research consortium brings together chemists and engineers to devise new continuous flow reactors which can make large-scale processes accessible to all. Integrating these methodologies with smart recycling, the reactors minimise toxic chemical and solvent use while”

Thanks to a grant from the Engineering and Physical Research Council, 26 industrial companies have signed up to a £6M project, Photo-Electro, to tackle the problem.

Visitors to the Summer Science Exhbition will see ingenious hands-on demonstrations, using coffee pots, Lego and red cabbage water, illustrating the prinicples behind the Photo-Electro team’s work.

Professor Kevin Booker-Milburn of the University of Bristol said: “Photo-electro epitomises a forward looking culture of sustainable chemical synthesis by a ‘reagentless’ approach. Visitors will see reactors no bigger than a large Thermos flask that can make kilogram quantities of chemical building blocks for drug-discovery. With little or no waste streams this illustrates how Photo-electro will contribute to the health and wealth of our nation in a sustainably responsible future”   

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