"We thought that if we could find a way to cut the ring chemically, then we would be able to eliminate very quickly and form acrylate," Bernskoetter said. "And that turns out to be true."
He calls the finding an "enabling technology" that could eventually be incorporated in a full catalytic process for making acrylate on a mass scale. "We can now basically do all the steps required," he said.
From here, the team needs to tweak the strength of the Lewis acid used. To prove the concept, they used the strongest acid that was easily available, one derived from boron. But that acid is too strong to use in a repeatable catalytic process because it bonds too strongly to the acrylate product to allow additional reactions with the nickel catalyst.
"In developing and testing the idea, we hit it with the biggest hammer we could," Bernskoetter said. "So what we have to do now is dial back and find one that makes it more practical."
There's quite a spectrum of Lewis acid strengths, so Bernskoetter is confident that there's one that will work. "We think it's possible," he said. "Organic chemists do this kind of reaction with Lewis acids all the time."
The ongoing research is part of a collaboration between Brown and Yale supported by the National Science Foundation's Centers for Chemical Innovation program. The work is aimed at activating CO2 for use in making all kinds of commodity chemicals, and acrylate is a good place to start.
"It's around a $2 billion-a-year industry," Bernskoetter said. "If we can find a way to make acrylate more cheaply, we think the industry will be interested."
|Contact: Kevin Stacey|