Phosphorus is a mineral element found in rocks and bones and also a critical ingredient in fertilizers, pesticides, detergents and other industrial and household chemicals. Once phosphorus is mined from rocks, getting it into these products is hazardous and expensive, and chemists have been trying to streamline the process for decades.
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) chemistry professor Christopher Cummins and one of his graduate students, Daniel Tofan, have developed a new way to attach phosphorus to organic compounds by first splitting the phosphorus with ultraviolet light. Their method, described in the Aug. 26 online edition of Angewandte Chemie, eliminates the need for chlorine, which is usually required for such reactions and poses health risks to workers handling the chemicals.
Guy Bertrand, chemistry professor at the University of California at Riverside, says that the beauty of the discovery is its simplicity. “It is amazing to realize that nobody thought earlier about such a simple approach to incorporate phosphorus into organic molecules,” he says. “Such a synthetic approach to organo-phosphorus compounds is indeed urgent, since the old (chlorine)-based phosphorus chemistry has a lot of undesirable consequences on our environment.”
While the new reaction cannot produce the quantities needed for large-scale production of phosphorus compounds, it opens the door to a new field of research that could lead to such industrial applications, says Bertrand, who was not involved in the research.
Cummins plans to investigate what other organo-phosphorus compounds can be synthesized with ultraviolet light, including metallic compounds. He has already created a nickel-containing organo-phosphorus molecule, which could have applications in electronics.
All these steps are move the experiments toward a greener chemistry.