Easy, chemoselective, safe, non-toxic, scalable, cheap… All these words give a pretty nice summary of the main goals that all chemists are going after when they want to design a perfect chemical process.
“Perfection does not exist”, someone could say… But Phil S. Baran and his co-workers had made a reality above chemical dreams by the application of Li-ion battery chemistry in synthetic organic electroreduction.
Indeed, they demonstrated that it is possible to obtain the same results as for the normal Birch reduction using a sacrificial anode material in combination with dimethylurea and tris(pyrrolidino)phosphoramide.
What makes that discovery so special?
The basic Birch reduction presents the following characteristics:
- It requires to use lithium metal (pyrophoric) and ammonia (hazardous),
- It involves cryogenic conditions and
- It liberates hydrogen (explosive).
So it is easy to guess that its scalability is neither sustainable nor safe.
On the contrary, the described new process achieves “strongly reducing conditions (…) in a simple and safe way, at ambient temperature without rigorous exclusion of air and moisture”, as the research team explained in their publication¹. Besides, it shows modular scalability, and a wide applicability in terms of compounds diversity (from simple arenes to more complex natural products) getting great chemoselectivy levels.
In that case, the key was found studying Li-ion battery technology, which has occupied decades of research and is present with us every day in our smartphones and laptops. Thus, my reflection is: “Never forget other field of work, thinking they are too complicated or too simple… Sometimes, the answer is just beside you; nearer than we think. As a matter of fact, research is what makes possible scientific progress; however, it is important to point out that this progression would only be possible if people share their knowledge and work together.
¹ Scalable and safe synthetic organic electroreduction inspired by Li-ion battery chemistry, Byron K. Peters and Co., Science 22 Feb 2019: Vol. 363, Issue 6429, pp. 838-84