copper image

Copper could replace precious metals in pharma production

pharmafile | November 9, 2012 | News story | Manufacturing and Production Sweden, copper, manufacturing 

Non-precious metals such as copper could be used as catalysts in pharmaceuticals production, replacing precious metals that are expensive and harmful to the environment, according to Swedish researchers.

“This is an important finding, not just academically but also for industry,” said Per-Fredrik Larsson, a chemist from the University Of Gothenburg who is working on experimental methods to assess new catalysts as well as calculation models to understand how the chemistry works.

Precious metals such as palladium and nickel are often used as catalysts in organic chemistry as they enable the production of many organic molecules, including pharmaceuticals, but there has been a drive towards trying to identify cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternatives such as iron and copper.

“Iron catalysts have proven to be a competitive alternative to precious metals for a number of reactions,” notes Larsson.  Now it emerges that copper may also have a greater role to play than previously thought.

Experiments with iron catalysis – carried out in conjunction with Carsten Bolm of RWTH Aachen University in Germany – indicate that some reactions thought to have been catalysed by iron were in fact catalysed by trace amounts of copper.

The finding was surprising as copper had previously been thought to be an ineffective catalyst requiring large quantities and high reaction temperatures.

The pharmaceutical industry needs to limit the use of catalysts as the quantity of metal in the end-product is strictly regulated and the recovery process can be both difficult and expensive. The finding that small quantities of copper can be used is therefore an important discovery.

“Our results show that copper has been given an undeservedly bad name as a catalyst”, said Larsson. “Given that copper chemistry is over a century old, it’s surprising that nobody’s realised this before.”

Phil Taylor

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