Electrostatic Catalysis

Making medicines and complex materials is messy and wasteful. Using electric fields as catalysts could make chemistry far cleaner

New Scientist, 12 August 2020

Because most molecules are polar, carefully aligned electric fields can be used to stabilise or destabilise them, thereby reducing the energy demands of a chemical process and allowing one to direct its outcome. Although electrostatics are harnessed widely in nature by enzymes, they have been largely ignored in chemical synthesis until now. Recently, we provided the first demonstration that external electric fields can catalyse an ordinary bond forming reaction, and showed how to harness electric fields using charged functional groups. Our current research aims to devise practical scaleable platforms for harnessing electric fields based on interfaces and ordered solvent environments, and to incorporate switchable electrostatic effects into conventional chemical catalysts to speed up reactions, and control their outcome.

Greener Synthetic Chemistry

Green chemistry efficiently utilises (preferably renewable) raw materials, eliminates waste and avoids the use of toxic and/or hazardous reagents and solvents in the manufacture and application of chemical products.

Sheldon, Green Chem. 2017, 19, 18–43.

A revolution in chemical synthesis is urgently needed: one that will directly address the global demands for safer and greener chemical processes, and use renewable local feedstocks to ensure we reduce damaging effects on our environment with minimal waste generation. We aim to design cleaner and safer chemical reactions, by taking advantage of electricity and light to selectively activate chemical bonds, and by designing smarter and greener chemical catalysts.

Polymer Chemistry

Plastic, in many ways, allows us to sustain our population of 7 billion. It is necessary for world-wide transportation of food and materials; for medical equipment; for computers.

Plastics Today Aug 20, 2012

In just over a century, plastics have transformed our lives making possible everything from electricity and telecommunications to modern medicine and transportation. They also take pressure off natural materials such as wood, natural rubber and invory. Unfortunately, this all comes with a mounting environmental cost, with Australians producing 42 kg of plastic waste per person per year. We need to design smarter materials, smarter ways of making them and smarter ways of recycling them. Using theory-guided experiment, our focus in on developing better ways of controlling radical polymerization, and better ways both of controlling or inhibiting polymer degradation.

Computational Chemistry

‘In so far as quantum mechanics is correct, chemical questions are problems in applied mathematics’.

Eyring, Walter, Kimball (1944)

While it has taken nearly a century, parallel gains in supercomputing power, quantum-chemical methodology and more recently machine learning mean we are now on the verge of using computers to plan chemical syntheses, design catalysts, and evaluate and optimise reaction conditions prior to costly experiments. While our primary focus is using computational chemistry to solve chemical problems, this often necessitates the development of accurate methodology to achieve this, particularly for larger chemical systems and complex solvent environments. We are also interested in the interpretation of computational chemistry and the links between quantum mechanics and qualitative chemical theory.