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Environmentally friendly catalysts: Their time has come

A little (Lewis pairs) frustration can help save the planet from global warming

Photo of: Douglas Stephan

Chemistry professor Douglas Stephan joined U of T in 2008.

The Paris agreement together with a new federal government in Canada has some predicting a new era of carbon pricing that could encourage industry to adopt cleaner, cheaper catalysts.

If so, it would be about time for Douglas Stephan, a University of Toronto chemistry professor. In 2006, while at the University of Windsor, Stephan and his students came up with a way to replace toxic metals thus reducing CO2 emissions from the manufacture of consumer goods, using a highly reactive acid-base compound mixtures known as “frustrated Lewis pairs,” or FLPs.

It’s the type of discovery that can help save the planet from global warming, so long as government and industry is willing to catch up to the science and adopt it.

“There is not a single aspect of our lives that isn’t touched by catalysts”

For more than 100 years, manufacturing has employed rare and expensive metals such as platinum as chemical “catalysts” to help make everything from plastics and drugs to French fries and cell phones. Stephan discovered FLPs can do the same job, with less cost and pollution, using more common elements such as boron that don’t require the carbon-intensive mining or production that metals do.

“There is not a single aspect of our lives that isn’t touched by catalysts, but most people have no idea,” said Stephan, who joined U of T in 2008. “We can do these things a lot cleaner and cheaper, but at the end of day, what it comes down to is whether industry will adopt it.”

There has been little incentive for industry to reduce CO2 emissions because there is no direct cost associated with the greenhouse gas, something governments could change by taxing the pollutant and helping create carbon markets, Stephan said.

Many observers predict the impetus to put a price on carbon emissions will get a boost from the recent adoption of the Paris climate agreement, which sets ambitious targets for all nations to reduce CO2 production and keep global warming in check.

“If companies don’t have a price tag on their emissions, I don’t see how we can drive the changes that society needs,” said Stephan.

Research focused on pharmaceutical industry

Photo of pills on a conveyor belt

Stephan’s research group is focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, which uses toxic metals in drug manufacturing that have to be removed before the products are sold. ©iStock.com | josemoraes

In the meantime, his U of T research group is focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, which currently uses toxic metals in drug manufacturing that have to be removed before the products are sold, a step that represents about 70 per cent of the cost of production.

Unlike governments and industry, scientists do not have to be convinced of the potential for FLPs. Research groups all over the world are using the FLP concepts Stephan and his colleagues discovered to work on new technologies and applications.

Stephan and his group also continue to forge ahead with their work. They have published some 200 academic papers that have been cited more than 10,000 times by other scientists since their discovery, making Stephan one of the most-highly cited chemistry researchers in the world.

Among other things, the team is looking into the possibility of using FLPs to capture and convert CO2 into fuels such as methanol as part of carbon-neutral technologies.

Discovery changing the way chemists look at manufacturing

“The road from scientific discovery to commercial application is longer than most people appreciate,” said Stephan. “The technology behind today’s computers and mobile devices is based on fundamental concepts developed in the 1950s.”

But “green chemistry” research like FLPs is predicated on the idea society should always do whatever it can to increase efficiency, reduce energy consumption and minimize the environmental impacts of manufacturing and industrial production.

“Most importantly, it was a discovery that really is changing the way chemists look at how to manufacture materials,” said Stephan.

“It opened up a portion of the periodic table that people assumed was not going to be useful.”