Dr. Stephanie MacQuarrie and her research team are currently developing molecules used to speed up important chemical reactions and make them more selective – a critical step in making pharmaceuticals. The special thing about these molecules, also known as catalysts, is that they can be easily recovered and re-used which eliminates significant waste and researcher time making the whole process much more green.
“Currently companies that make chemicals, like drugs, often use expensive heavy metals like Rhodium and Palladium in their reactions,” says Dr. MacQuarrie. “These metals are expensive, non-renewable and they are NOT easily recovered or reused. You can see how that might be an issue if you are using heavy metals to make pharmaceuticals. Your end product must not contain any of heavy metal catalysts and the processes used to remove them are often costly and environmentally unfriendly. Our new catalysts do not contain any heavy metals and are much easier to remove.”
This area of research, known as heterogeneous organic catalysts, has gained momentum over the last decade, but many of the new catalysts that don’t use metals are not as effective, yet. Dr. MacQuarrie explains, “Our new method gives our catalyst molecules more freedom to move around and react better and faster, comparable to the heavy metal catalysts they will replace.”
For Dr. MacQuarrie the research itself is just as exciting as the team of students that she gets to work with and mentor along the journey, noting, “The funding for these projects goes towards paying undergraduate students beginning in their first or second year to actually do the research and get hands-on experience. It is amazing what an undergraduate student accomplishes working on these projects over the summer. Students in my research group tend to publish 1-2 papers in peer reviewed journals during their undergraduate degree and to me, as a researcher, that’s a huge part of what it’s really all about.”