Use of Water in Chemistry Synthesis

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Contributed by Umayr Sufi, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, for the ACS GCI "What's Your Green Chemistry?" Campaign

Taking an Organic Chemistry course at my community college, my interest grew into the details of improving chemistry synthesis. I teamed up with my professor and looked at Diels-Alder synthesis, using a common industrial reaction involving furan and maleic acid. Our aim was to use the principles of green chemistry to develop more safe and effective methods for synthesis of this reaction.

We found one process (out of many) that scored high on being safe for us to carry out combined with giving us efficient results; the use of water as a solvent. We found through experimentation that water allowed the Diels-Alder synthesis to take place, with time efficiency and respectable yields. Achieving the goals of green chemistry is logical for research environments and industrial settings. As a scientist, you want your reactants to be sustainable, your solvent to be safe, and your entire reaction to be conducted in a matter so you get maximum yield in the shortest amount of time possible. We found that using a green solvent like water, along with sustainable reactants (furan/maleic acid) was one of the ways we could improve upon chemical synthesis – giving us timely and readable results while being safe for us to use in the laboratory environment.

This idea of using water is not completely new. In the journal Angewandte Chemie scientists from the Scripps Research Institute in 2005 conducted several studies on the use of water as a solvent in chemical synthesis. In a typical Diels-Alder reaction they found that using water as solvent had the reaction complete in the quickest time, and produced a high yield when compared to other solvents. Take a look at the table! You can see that water, used in the same concentration as the other chemicals, allowed the reaction to take place in the least amount of time and produced a high yield of product (81 percent). This shows us that water is an efficient solvent for Diels-Alder synthesis. It can get the job done in the most efficient manner, and be a safe chemical for us to use in synthesis.

Water isn’t exactly a new substance, but it’s something the industry and even academics can overlook when doing chemistry. It’s in everyone’s interest to conduct synthesis in the most effective way possible, and for my green chemistry research I found water does exactly that.

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