News: Academic

Chemistry Professor Synthesizing Molecules in a Sustainable Way

By Adam Grybowski

Sparking a chemical reaction in the laboratory often requires heat, and one of the most common ways of heating chemicals is also the most wasteful. The technique is called reflux, and it requires energy to boil solvents and continually running water to cool and condense the resulting steam back into the flask. Chemists often use reflux over long periods of time, consuming large amounts of energy. 

“The sciences have been notoriously huge offenders of the environment, but they’re also the first industries to get on the pathway to sustainability,” says Danielle Jacobs, assistant professor of chemistry, biochemistry and physics

Jacobs’ lab work focuses on combining two molecules to form new compounds. She believes that the new compounds will have uses as antibiotics or agrochemicals. But synthesizing the new compounds requires heat. Like reflux, the conventional way Jacobs would heat the molecules – placing them in a vial and submerging that into hot silicon oil for anywhere between 24 and 72 hours – consumes a lot of energy. 

An alternative is to heat the molecules in a microwave, which achieves the same reaction in as little as 45 minutes. “You get the same product, with the same purity, but things go a lot faster,” Jacobs says. A lot of energy gets saved along the way too. 

In January, Jacobs and her co-workers applied for a grant to fund the purchase of a new, bigger, higher-functioning microwave to replace the University’s existing one. Microwaves used in labs aren’t so different from ones used in kitchens; they’re more powerful, precise and – for scientific purposes – safer. “These are very robust instruments,” Jacobs says. 

A bigger microwave would allow Jacobs’ lab to investigate far more molecules in greater quantities. Though the current microwave can synthesize and process six or seven new compounds in one day, it can accommodate only one sample at a time. If Rider receives the grant and purchases the larger instrument, students would be able to run reactions in tandem, saving not just energy but time. 

“The time is important,” Jacobs says. “Labs are only three hours long, and we go over that all the time. Chemistry is messy and doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to.” 

Using microwaves as efficient sources of heat is part of a global trend toward green, or sustainable, chemistry. “No scientist wakes up in the morning saying, ‘Today I’d like to do my experiment in the most harmful, wasteful way possible,’” Jacobs says. 

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