Plea from An Armchair Chemist

Plea from An Armchair Chemist

Posted by Chris Heron on Sep 26, 2020 3:03 pm

I am in a very unusual position for someone with so great a passion for chemistry – I have no chemistry contacts and nobody with whom to discuss the subject at my level.

I am not a professional chemist and have never had a post using my extensive chemical knowledge, which I have been acquiring  since my childhood in the 1950s and which includes a Cambridge degree - scraped I'm afraid due to youthful distractions and recurrent depression. But I have continued to study the subject for pleasure ever since - you should see my bookcases! I love to speculate on chemical possibilities and sometimes will contact a chemist whose work is in an area relevant to one of my ideas.

But when I contact working chemists they very seldom reply. I know that a great many communications sent to scientists by amateurs are from cranks but I thought that was mostly a problem for the likes of mathematicians, cosmologists and evolutionary theorists. These often hear from people who mistakenly believe they have overturned well-established theories and that if only those hidebound scientists would listen to them they would be recognised as greater than Gauss, Einstein or Darwin. But I make no claims to revolutionary innovation - I just ask if anyone has tried a particular reaction or attempted to make a particular substance.

For I love to explore the near-infinite world of chemical possibilities. As a recent example, I  wondered what would happen if you tried to put the SF3+ ion instead of NO+ into transition metal complexes - just as the isoelectronic PF3 can replace CO in such complexes giving products of remarkably similar properties and often more stable. Whether or not reactions like this one work could be easily discovered:

Co(CO)4- + SF3+BF4 -→ Co(CO)3(SF3) + CO(g) + BF4-
cf  Co(CO)4- + NO+BF4- → Co(CO)3(NO) + CO(g) +BF4-

And what of other sulfonium ions like S(CH3)3+ and S(C6H5)3+, isoelectronic with phosphines which also form many stable complexes? One might likewise wonder if SiF3- and other silyl anions show any similarities to cyanide.

There’s a great deal more – a family of complex oxides of beryllium with two other elements and having a novel cubic structure related to perovskite, cage molecules and ions like [OBe4(RPO3)4]2- based on a substructure in this lattice; countless carbon allotropes (twenty years ago I came up with the recently-discussed ‘pentagonal diamond’), organic molecules with five or more accessible oxidation states, etc.

Were I a man of means I would have set up my own lab and tried out my ideas myself, but I’m not and at 70, never will be. So I’d like to put out a few of my speculations and see if anyone finds them remotely interesting or is even working on similar stuff themselves. I’ve been speculating for 55+ years now and quite a lot of what I have dreamed up has since been done - like icosahedral C80 fullerene, now known to be stable as C806- and commercially available with endohedral metal nitride clusters as Trimetaspheres®.

But there remains plenty that has not. In some cases it may be that what I have thought up isn’t possible or has been tried and failed - and the failed attempt not reported as often happens.  It may even be that nobody else has thought of it, or if they have, think it insufficiently important to try and unlikely to have any practical uses. I’m afraid my speculations are driven entirely by curiosity with no thought to possible applications, yet much that has turned out to be of great practical importance has been discovered by those so motivated.

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