Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Is It Useful? A Question For Research In General

Those funding research want the outcome of their funding to be useful, which means that the research either leads to something useful, or it does so indirectly by inspiring someone else. The problem with this attitude is that it inspires some writers to present their research in a way that looks a lot more relevant than it actually is. The best that can be expected is that it will inspire someone else to pick up the challenge. But how does that come about?
 
One interesting problem involving invention, or of the development of new technology, is the ability to see things before others do, to see the possibilities and also to quickly see what will become a dead end well before it wastes too much of your time. So with that in mind, what to make of a recent paper on CO2 reduction (JACS 137: 5332)? The statement made in the paper is that in the presence of Li2[2,2-C6H4(BH3)2 ], CO2 can be reduced to methane or methanol if a suitable reducing agent is present. What appears to happen is that the CO2 forms some sort of complex with the two BH3- groups, and the CO2 molecule becomes bent, and an aromatic system is formed. This would significantly lower the activation energy for reaction at the carbon atom, hence the catalytic activity. Unfortunately, the reducing agent is not one that obviously comes to mind for making bulk chemicals.
 
So, is this useful? The first thing to note is that we need to get rid of CO2, and in principle, this does it. Why "in principle"? Because, when we look at the table of yields, the yields quoted are those of the reducing agent's products. Thus triethylsilane was used as the reducing agents, and all the products noted were silicon derivatives. This certainly supports the concept that a reduction occurred BUT it gives no clues for specific reactions, how much of what product was obtained. Elsewhere, it adds that the products were either methane or methanol, and one diagram shows excellent yield of an intermediate , and implies up to 89% yield of methanol. That sounds promising, until we start to consider the reducing agent. If you have to use reducing agents like triethylsilane, then the reagents will be far more expensive and difficult to get than the products, particularly since several mole equivalents will be required.
 
In my opinion, as it stands it is unlikely to be useful, as it uses difficult-to-get reagents to make commonly available chemicals. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is potential here to make use of the aromatic intermediate is some way yet to be discovered. This is the challenge of chemistry.
 
How would you respond to this challenge? My guess is that pressurized hydrogen with a hydride transfer agent that acted catalytically would be the best bet for methanol. However, some reactive anion that did not react with the boron groups might offer the chance to add to the carbon atom and make a carboxylic acid, which in turn might be of synthetic interest. Your opinions?
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 21, 2015 11:06 PM Europe/London

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