GreenCentre Canada has signed an agreement to commercialize a new class of iron-based catalysts developed by chemists from the Atlantic region. The molecules could lead to greener processes for everything from polymers to pharmaceuticals.

Carbon-carbon cross-coupling — a crucial step in many pharmaceutical syntheses — is currently catalyzed almost exclusively with palladium-based compounds. Unfortunately, palladium’s cost and potential toxicity necessitates the use of expensive processing techniques to separate the catalyst from the finished product. Christopher Kozak, a chemist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, leads a team looking to develop alternatives based on iron. “Our bodies know how to get rid of surplus iron, so you don’t have to worry so much,”

Kozak says. Kozak’s group presented some preliminary findings at the Atlantic Inorganic Discussion Weekend held in Moncton, N.B. in 2010. In the audience was Kozak’s former lab partner Michael Shaver, then a chemist at the University of Prince Edward Island. Shaver had been working on atom-transfer radical polymerization (ATRP), which uses copper-based catalysts that tend to get trapped in the final polymer, resulting in a green-tinted product. “You can use fancy processing techniques to remove the colour, but they introduce a lot of wasteful steps,” says Shaver.

Kozak sent Shaver a selection of iron-based catalysts, some of which turned out to be just as active for ATRP as the copper-based ones, but when quenched they appear white in colour. “Ironically, the compounds that worked the worst in terms of carbon-carbon cross-coupling seemed to work the best for ATRP,” says Kozak. Fortunately, the reverse was also true, resulting in effective catalysts for both applications.

This spring, the catalysts were in-licensed by GreenCentre Canada, which will sell them either on its own or through distributors like Sigma-Aldrich. This will allow pharmaceutical and polymer manufacturers to try them out in their R&D departments, the first step towards full commercialization. “Having it available for researchers to play with will really open the doors,” says Kozak.