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Process Converts Greenhouse Gas into Useful Chemicals

G.K. Surya Prakash (Phillip Channing, University of Southern California)

G.K. Surya Prakash (Phillip Channing, University of Southern California)

Chemists at University of Southern California in Los Angeles devised a method for changing fluoroform, a common yet potent greenhouse gas, into reagents for producing pharmaceuticals and agriculture chemicals. The team led by G.K. Surya Prakash, director of USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, published its findings in this week’s issue of the journal Science (paid subscription required).

Fluoroform is a byproduct of the non-stick Teflon coating on cooking surfaces, and found in other products, such as armaments, refrigerants, and fire extinguishers. However, it is also a powerful greenhouse gas, with an estimated global warming potential 11,700 times higher than carbon dioxide. As a result, makers of these products must store the fluoroform they generate, with up to now little prospect for ever disposing of the gas.

The university says Prakash (pictured left) spent decades studying fluorine, a primary component of fluoroform, which is a common element found in 20 to 25 percent of all drug compounds on the market, including familiar brand names such as Prozac and Celebrex. Prakash calls fluorine, “a small atom with a big ego,” because of its small size — similar in size to to hydrogen atoms — and its strong affinity for other electrons. That bonding ability with carbon, for example, improves the bioavailability of drugs made with fluorine.

The research published this week reflects years of trial and error tests, from which the USC researchers were able to identify the precise conditions for converting fluoroform into a wide variety of fluorinated compounds used in industrial labs, including those making drugs and chemicals used in agriculture. Another product of the experiments was trifluoromethanesulfonic acid, a widely used acid, some 100 times stronger than sulfuric acid.

“In real estate,” notes Prakash, “everything is ‘location, location, location.’ In chemistry, it is ‘conditions, conditions, conditions.'”

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