Using sunlight to transform chemical manufacturing into ‘zero-waste’ industries

Chemical engineers have successfully manipulated carbon nitride to use sunlight to synthesize fluorine-based molecules, which are key building blocks of pharmaceutical products in a breakthrough on the path to the ‘holy grail’ of zero waste industry manufacturing.

Researchers from The University of Manchester have discovered that simple manipulations of carbon nitride, a metal-free, non-toxic solid, made of Earth abundant elements of carbon and nitrogen, are able to efficiently exploit solar light for the synthesis of organic molecules containing fluorine, which are the building blocks of many agro-chemical and pharmaceutical applications.

The concept the scientists used is known as ‘photocatalysis’ whereby artificial light or sunlight is able to trigger chemical reactions at ambient conditions, which would otherwise require more energy intensive processes.

The process can be compared to that of natural photosynthesis used by plants to harness the sun’s energy. However, artificial exploitation of light energy is very challenging as materials used for this purpose are generally very expensive, difficult to make and very often not efficient in triggering chemical reactions. This represents a major issue in terms of process viability on a large scale.

Industrial implementation of photocatalytic process would be hugely beneficial for the environment and society as it would be able to provide cleaner and more sustainable chemical products reducing and potentially removing the use of fossil fuels as primary source of energy in such industrial productions.

The new findings which are published today in the journal Science Advances, are the result of an international collaboration between Dr Carmine D’Agostino at The University of Manchester (UK), with The University of Trieste (Italy), together with the CNR Institute of Materials for Electronics and Magnetism (Italy) and the CIC biomaGUNE (Spain).

The team at The University of Manchester led by Dr Carmine D’Agostino, together with Luke Forster (PhD student) and Dr Graziano Di Carmine (Research Associate) played a pivotal role in unravelling, through the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) techniques, the fundamental changes in carbon nitride properties responsible for the increased efficiency of the nano-engineered materials.

Dr Carmine D’Agostino said: “The chemical industry is a fundamental pillar for economic and technological development. Yet, it is often associated with environmental pollution and climate change. In recent years, efforts are being made to shift the current approach to industrial chemistry towards a greener, more sustainable and zero-waste approach.”

“This new exploitation of solar light for synthesis of useful chemicals is a very promising technology, yet very challenging. In particular, the search of non-toxic, widely available and economically viable materials, able to harness solar energy for efficient chemical conversion holds the Holy Grail for such photochemical conversions.”

This discovery paves new ways for the sustainable synthesis of a wide range of molecules of interest for the pharmaceutical and food industries and puts the basis for a new approach towards modern industrial chemistry.

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