I've written both here and elsewhere about flow chemistry, the technique where you pump your reactions through a reaction tube of some sort rather than mixing them up in a flask. And I freely admit that I have a fondness for the idea, but it's definitely not the answer to every problem.
For one thing, I tend to like the idea of sending reactants over a bed of catalyst or solid-supported reagent (what I call Type II or Type III flow reactions in that 2008 link above). Type I reactions, in my scheme, are the ones where you just use a plain tube or channel, and all the reactants are present in solution. A big advantage of those, as far as I can tell, is to handle tricky intermediates that you wouldn't want to have large amounts of or to control potential runaway exothermic reactions. There's also the possibility of running the reaction stream through some solid-phase purifications and scavengers, the way Steve Ley and his group like to work, which is convenient since you're already pumping the stuff along anyway.
But the sorts of reactions that you often see in the flow-chemistry equipment brochures. . .well, that's something else again. More than one outfit has earnestly tried to sell me a machine based on how well it did a Fischer esterification. My problem wasn't that the reaction was discovered almost in Neanderthal times - it was that Thag run reaction in round bottom flask, work fine, not need flow reactor. I mean, really, this is a nonexistent problem and needs no solution.
So I read this new paper in Angewandte Chemie with interest. The authors are looking at some standard catalytic organic transformations and comparing them carefully between batch mode and a flow setup. They stipulate at the beginning that flow chemistry has the advantages mentioned above, but they're wondering about what it can do for more ordinary chemistry:
"In addition to these developments, general and rather sweeping claims have been made that microreactor systems accelerate organic reactions and that lower catalyst loadings and higher yields can routinely be achieved in these systems compared to those of reactions carried out in flasks. Despite these potential advantages, examples of successful implementation of microflow reaction technologies in either academic organic synthesis or industrial process research and manufacturing remain more isolated than these reports would suggest. However, the implication is that it is only a matter of time before microflow reactors will dominate laboratory studies aimed at both fundamental research and practical applications of complex organic reactions, with our current mode of operation in reaction flasks ultimately becoming a relic of the past. It seems therefore worthwhile to examine the assumptions behind this viewpoint to provide a critical analysis of “flask versus flow” as a means for effecting reactions."
What they find is that there's very little difference. A catalyzed aldol reaction that was studied under flow conditions by the Seeburger lab is shown to perform identically to a batch reaction, if you make sure to run them at the same temperature and with the same catalyst loading. The paper then looks at asymmetric addition of diethyl zinc to benzaldehyde, a model reaction that I often wish would disappear from human consciousness so it would afflict us no more. But here, too, under more challenging heat-transfer conditions, flow showed no differences from batch. The authors point out that this reaction is, in fact, run under industrial conditions, but not in a flow apparatus. Rather, it's done in batch mode, but though good old slow addition of reagent, which also gives you control over exotherms.
The authors specifically exempt all supported-reagent chemistry from their analysis, so that preserves what I like about flow systems. But for homogeneous reactions, the only time they can see an advantage for the flow reactors is when there's a potential for a dangerous rise in temperature. So now we'll see what some of the more flow-oriented people have to say in reply. . .