Highlights from the Annual Main Group Chemistry Meeting

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Being a main group chemist myself, it only makes sense that on Friday I attended the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual Main Group Chemistry Meeting. Held at Queens College, Oxford, the main group chemistry annual meeting is for members of the RSC who do research into main group chemistry, which includes working with elements of both the s- and p-block, to showcase their work and network with people with similar research interests. Main group chemistry is really taking off at the moment, with many compounds being synthesised with interesting and unusual structures and potential useful applications.

Although the main group chemistry interest group may not be one of the biggest, but there is some excellent chemistry being carried out by the research groups involved, and it was a great day of presentations and posters. Plus, Queens College was a stunning backdrop to the day, with all the grandeur you’d expect from an Oxford University building.

Here are some of my highlights:

Phosphine-boranes: a Multi-facet Association by Prof. Didier Bourissou

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Compounds containing both phosphorus and boron are becoming increasingly popular, because of the presence of an electron donor and an electron acceptor moiety. These compounds allow for interesting properties, and you might have heard of their use in Frustrated Lewis Pairs, which notable academics such as Doug Stephan have exploited to great effect recently.

In his lecture, Prof. Bourissou described his research group’s use of phosphine-borane ligands to synthesise unusual metal complexes, where the borane moiety allowed for donation from a metal centre back into the ligand. Some of these compounds also allowed for some interesting reactivity with small molecules, and applications for C-C coupling reactions.

I work with phosphorus and boron myself, so this talk was of particular interest to me, but the combination of phosphorus and boron in such compounds is becoming increasingly prevalent in main group chemistry, and this work is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Stable Heteroleptic Alkaline-Earth Complexes: Synthesis and Catalysis of C-P and C-N Bond Formation by Dr Yan Sarazin

Alkaline-earth compounds are becoming more and more popular as of late, due to their increasing number of applications. Compared to many transition metals, alkaline earth metals are cheaper and safer, and so they’re desirable catalysts for many industrial processes.

In his talk, Dr Sarazin described his work synthesising a family of heteroleptic alkaline-earth compounds using aminophenolate, β-diketiminate and imino-anilide ligands. Some members of our research group carry out work synthesising heteroleptic alkaline-earth complexes, so I know firsthand how difficult this can be.

These compounds showed activity as catalysts for both C-P and C-N bond –forming reactions, which are of great use in organic chemistry, and highlights the prospect for compounds of this type to have significant synthetic applications.

Carbene-stabilization of Highly Reactiive Molecules by Prof. Gregory Robinson

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This, I could tell, was everyone’s highlight of the day. Greg Robinson is an amazingly successful main group chemist, and his research has been widely acknowledged as being ground-breaking, highly interesting and generally impressive. With publications in Science, JACS, Chem Comm, Angewante Chemie and other high-impact journals, Prof. Robinson has been gaining a great reputation for producing world-class chemistry with his research into the stabilisation of unusual and interesting molecules.

You might have heard of Greg from his synthesis of the first-ever neutral diborene, which was published in JACS in 2007. Molecules of this nature had been predicted computationally, but a stable example had never been successfully synthesised. In his lecture, he described the utilisation of N-heterocyclic carbenes to stabilise this reactive compound. These ligands have been used extensively throughout many areas of inorganic chemistry, from transition metal chemistry to f-block compounds to the main group chemistry described to us on Friday. Greg himself called them the ‘magic powder’ of ligands, as they seem to be capable of stabilising all sorts of interesting and unusual compounds.

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Another example of a ground-breaking molecule was his publication in Science in 2008, which described the synthesis of the first ever Si(0)-Si(0) double bond, once again stabilised by N-heterocyclic carbenes. His research group has worked extensively with these ligands to synthesise a whole range of unusual compounds, particularly those containing multiple bonds between main group elements.

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This is just the tip of the iceberg of tremendous chemistry that Greg and his group have managed to produce over the years, and I strongly recommend browsing through his publications if you get the chance. Greg himself is a great speaker, and I thoroughly enjoyed his lecture. The main group chemistry interest group committee did a great job getting him as the main speaker for the day, and he really finished off the conference in style.

The feeling on the day was that the main group meeting was a great success, with every presentation offering a great deal of interest and some really beautiful chemistry.

Main group chemistry has been a strong area for many years, and it would seem that this is set to continue. If you have an interest in this area, I would definitely recommend attending next year’s meeting!

 

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Tid Bit: The First Ever Nanotube Computer!

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Being from a university with a brilliant nanocarbon group, I’m very excited about the news reported in New Scientist yesterday that the first ever computer made from carbon nanotubes has been created.

I spent a portion of my undergraduate studies learning all about carbon nanotubes, and I find them incredibly interesting. Our nanocarbon group at Nottingham have produced a string of high-impact publications in this area, so it’s a topic that comes up often in department presentations and poster sessions. Carbon nanotubes have amazing, unique properties, and many important applications have been suggested since their discovery. This is a chance for the world to see one of those applications become a possibility.

Scientists at Stanford University have combined 178 nanotube transistors to make a very simple computer, but it’s still proof that nanotube computers could be a thing of the future. With their unique electrical properties, nanotubes make faster transistors than the silicon ones currently in use, and this simple computer is already capable of performing two different numerical tasks.

Theoretically, this nanocarbon computer could computer anything a regular PC can, just much more slowly.

This work is a big milestone in the path to an all-carbon computer, and really proves that carbon nanotubes can have the brilliant applications we hoped they would.

Exciting stuff!

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Intriguing Insight and Advice from Nature Jobs

I’ve been browsing the Nature Jobs website, and I’ve come across three articles that I just couldn’t choose between, so I thought I’d share all three of them with you. Nature Jobs is great for career advice in any area of science, and I’ve often found brilliant articles, comments and opinions there. Sometimes it can be hard to know where your science career is heading, or what options are open to you, and Nature Jobs is great for helping you gather your thoughts about your current situation. These articles are particularly enlightening, and I hope you find them useful!

Ticket to Everywhere – do some PhD courses do more harm than good?

Here, Peter Fiske discusses whether some PhD programmes are actually disadvantageous to graduates, with regards to their future career prospects. Obviously, PhD courses are ideal for a career as a post-doctoral researcher or an academic, as it equips you with the laboratory and research skills essential for these roles, but is it enough for careers outside of the lab?

In this article, Fiske questions whether the focus purely on research during a PhD in most universities leads to graduates being poorly equipped for the world of work, where ‘soft’ skills are in high demand. This is an interesting idea, because it it’s true that some PhD students do worry that they’ve doomed themselves in choosing to study for a PhD.

It’s suggested that universities follow the private sector, and offer training in areas such as business and leadership, so that PhD students are ideal candidates for both academic and industry careers. I’m lucky that, here at Nottingham, I have access to the Graduate School and its wealth of extra training and opportunities, and I’m actually required to undertake a number of courses each year as part of my PhD programme. This is one of the reasons why Nottingham is currently number 2 in the UK for Chemistry research.

However, students often find themselves unable to take part in such crucial activities because their supervisor expects them to spend 100% of their time in the lab. Unfortunately, this is extremely common, but it’s important that students make it clear that professional development is crucial to enhance their career prospects, and make their PhD a ‘ticket to everywhere’.

Time to Reflect – should your group try a lab retreat?

I found this article to be of particular interest, and I think any PhD student or post-doc should read it. Eleftherios Diamandis here suggests research groups take part in a ‘lab retreat’ in order to re-evaluate the projects being undertaken by each member, and give the group as a whole more focus.

It’s really a great idea. Rather than undergoing the usual group meetings, where students and post-docs discuss recent experimental issues and methodological confusion, the group stands back and looks at the long-term development of each project being undertaken. This allows them to look at the big picture, even to the extent of questioning the validity of the project itself.

Students are able to question what impact their work might have, should it be successful, and what limitations their current strategies appear to be having. Working on day-to-day issues can often make students forget about what actually motivates their project – I.e. why are they doing this research in the first place? – and a retreat can allow the entire group to put their work into a fresh perspective.

Furthermore, this sort of thinking can allow each member of the group to suggest new ideas, strategies, innovations and methods which might not be realised during the usual hubbub of lab work and group meetings. Lab groups can sometimes find themselves in a lull, where the supervisor and students are ticking along, continuing with the work they’ve been doing for years, and not appreciating what they’d set out to achieve and how they’re going to get there.

A lab retreat is a great idea both for mature research groups which have lost their initial excitement and drive, and newer groups who are perhaps just missing some focus. Plus, it’s always great for students to remember why they’re doing the work they’re doing, and this could really renew their motivation and passion for their research.

On My Way to Being a Scientist – one man’s path to a research career

This is a delightful article by Thomas M. Schofield, where he details his choice to change his career, and how he ‘accidentally’ became a scientist.

I always find it useful finding out how people find themselves in the career position they’re in, particularly if it’s one I’d like to pursue myself, and Thomas’ story is a particularly interesting one. He describes how his sister being rushed to hospital caused him to question the point of his current career, which led to him undertaking a masters degree in neuropsychology.

Thomas goes on to describe how his career passed through four stages, from wanting to know the truth about your topic, to the fact that scientists can’t decide what’s true, then realising no one knows what is true, to realising that science isn’t about finding the truth, but is about finding a less wrong answer. As uninteresting as that may sound, it’s actually a fascinating journey through Thomas’ career and how his constant search for answers led to him wanting to be a scientist, without even knowing it.

What makes this article so great is how relatable it is. For example, Thomas describes his discovery that published papers are simply polished and perfect versions of research awash with confusing and contradicting data and work that conjures up more questions than answers. I remember being in the first few years of my undergraduate degree, and assuming that everything we were taught was the result of science that just worked every time, and that research always made perfect sense. Obviously, as a PhD student going into my second year, I know this to be completely untrue, and it’s reassuring to see Thomas went through the same transition out of ignorance as the rest of us do.

I find this article to actually be really uplifting, shining a new light on what research really means, and why we might want to be scientists. I recommend that anyone involved in research takes a look at this, it’s really worth a read.

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Featured Journal – Chemical Communications

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This edition of Featured Journal is one of my personal favourites – Chemical Communications, or Chem Comm.

With an impact factor of 6.378, Chem Comm is a journal which specialises in the rapid publications of significant developments in the chemical sciences. The speed of publications is shown by the fact that this journal puts out 100 issues per year, and only high-quality chemistry research is shown.

Chem Comm features communications from all areas of chemistry, providing a great tool for chemists to find recent cutting edge research in their field. The nature of the journal means that there is always something interesting to read about, and I personally found it difficult to pick out articles to highlight.

You can find the latest addition here, although you will need a membership to the RSC or a subscription via a university to see all of the content.

In Chem Comm today:

“Anthrocene-bisphosphonate based novel fluorescent organic nanoparticles explored as apoptosis inducers of cancer cells”

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Anti-cancer chemistry is always going to be a hot topic, with successful cancer remedies being highly sought after by the chemistry community at large. This article reports the use of an organic nanoparticle, based on anthrocene, which self-assembles to form a fluorescent cancer-killing particle which doesn’t harm normal cells in the body. This is an exciting development in anti-cancer therapy, and will hopefully pave the way to new, effective cancer treatments.

“A new versatile class of hetero-tetra-metallic assemblies: highlighting single-molecule magnet behaviour”

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Single molecule magnetism is becoming a major subset of coordination chemistry, and coordination compounds which exhibit single molecule magnetism are of great interest at the moment. This article describes the synthesis of a series of very interesting coordination compounds containing 4 metal centres using cyanide ligands. These compounds show interesting magnetic and photochemical activity, and are in themselves a very interesting new type of inorganic compound.

Electrochemistry of AuII AuIII Pincer Complexes: Determination of the Au(II)-Au(II) Bond Energy

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I chose to highlight this article because I watched a presentation by one of the authors, Dragos Rosca, at the Coordination Chemistry Discussion Group Meeting in July, and it was really great work. Gold chemistry is fairly underdeveloped compared with many of its transition metal neighbours, and is dominated by complexes featuring gold in its +1 or +3 oxidation states. The authors have synthesised a really neat complex containing an unsupported gold(II)-gold(II) bond using a pyridyl pincer ligand, and this article describes the use of electrochemistry to determine its bond energy. I’ve recently undertaken a postgraduate course in electrochemistry, and it really is interesting. It goes on to describe the use of cyclic voltammetry to determine the reduction pathways of similar LAu-H and LAu-OH complexes. This is really nice coordination chemistry and a great demonstration of the utility of electrochemical techniques.

“A Novel Protecting Group Methodology for Syntheses Using Nitroxides”

Most organic chemists will be more than familiar with the use of protecting groups for the preservation of certain moieties whilst carrying out transformations elsewhere in a molecule. Although they require the use of extra steps and reagents in syntheses, they are often necessary and crucial for keeping part of a molecule safe from attack by a chemical reagent. Here, we see the protection of the nitroxide functional group, which has many applications in areas such as materials science and medicine. The protection involves the use of the relatively simple methoxyamine group, which can then be cleaved in good yield using meta-chloroperoxybenzoic acid (mCPBA). This simple and effective new methodology will no doubt assist synthetic chemists everywhere in their pursuit of new nitroxide-containing molecules.

With its great deal of variety and high publication output, Chem Comm always makes for a good read. Personally, I find it to be one of the most interesting general chemistry publications, and the fact that most of its articles are relatively short makes it easy to breeze through and find what is most relevant and appealing to you. Give it a go!

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Tid Bit: Rubber Research is Bouncing Back!

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Today I came across an interesting and in-depth article on Science News online outlining the plight of the rubber industry and what scientists are doing to tackle it.

The lack of sustainability in the rubber industry is unknown to the public at large, and it seems that most people are unaware of how finite our supplies of this resource are. Currently, rubber is sourced from the Hevea brasiliensis tree, which is only grown to a commercial scale in a few countries, or from petroleum sources, which are growing more and more limited. Furthermore, rubber trees tend to be grown in countries where political action can lead to supplies being endangered.

This article, written by Cristy Gelling, goes into tremendous detail about the formation of rubber, the history of its production and what technologies are being implemented to tackle the squeeze on this vital product, including using renewable resources such as dandelions.

If you’re curious about how research is moving forward in this significant industrial area of chemistry, take a look!

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Save That Helium!

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Last night I attended the wedding of my fiancé’s cousin and, although it looked lovely, I was a bit shocked by the number of balloons which were used as decoration, due to the ever-worsening helium shortage happening in the world right now.

Helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe but, due to how light it is, it easily leaves our atmosphere and escapes into space. Furthermore, the primary route of collecting helium is as via extraction from natural gas reserves. Therefore, Helium is a finite resource on Earth.

The US government has been selling off helium at low rates since 1996, and this has led to this precious resource not being collected and stored as efficiently as it should have been. An article in The Independent states that the entire US stock supply of helium will be sold off by 2015, leading to huge question marks hanging over the future of many research projects and technologies.

The cheap price of helium has led to a tremendous waste of the gas in party balloons, when it could serve a much better use in MRI and NMR machines. As a chemist, I know how valuable NMR machines are to research, and my PhD would virtually come to a standstill if I couldn’t take advantage of this vital characterisation technique.

The helium shortage was brought to my attention even more so this week by the attempted journey across the Atlantic by Jonathon Trappe in a lifeboat suspended by 370 giant cluster balloons. The Royal Society of Chemistry posted an article online in July condemning this trip, due to the massive waste of this precious resource. Although a journey across the Atlantic using balloons would be an amazing feat, would it really be worth it when we could be using this helium for medical applications, such as combining it with oxygen to help support new babies with breathing? The answer, in my opinion, is no, and the matter was made even more aggravating to the scientific community by the abandonment of the flight on Friday due to technical difficulties.

A concern of mine is that too few members of the public are aware of this worrying shortage, and continue to waste it on balloons for parties, weddings and anniversaries. Everywhere I go, I see helium escaping into the atmosphere, never to be recovered and used again. There needs to be more education in place so that people both understand what a possible crisis this shortage could become, and appreciate the many important uses of helium which we need to conserve it for.

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Green Chemistry – A Fruitful Career Path?

Following on from my Featured Journal segment last week, an article in Nature Careers this week discusses how moving into the green chemistry area can be a prosperous career move.

The article explains how additional training in areas of green chemistry can really add to the skill set of a chemistry graduate, and this ever-expanding area of chemistry is an area which many companies are keen to get involved with.

Green chemistry can be incorporated into all almost all areas of the chemical sciences, by taking into account the life cycle of the processes involved, and the impact each chemical and waste has on the environment.

An intriguing aspect of green chemistry is that the process must not only be environmentally-friendly, but be more efficient than and just as cost-effective as what is currently carried out in industry. This is the great challenge which most green chemists battle against, and why, if their research proves fruitful, they may hit the research jackpot by following this path.

Green chemists aren’t asked for specifically by chemical companies, but applicants with a knowledge of safer and more efficient processes are very valuable.

This article goes into great depth about the benefits of green chemistry to industry, and to your career if you choose to follow a path which incorporates green chemistry into your training. In a world where traditional chemical sources are dwindling and the need for safer and environmentally-friendly processes is greater than ever before, it’s never been a better time to learn more about green chemistry.

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