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October 28, 2010
Shine A Light
I'm enjoying myself very much in the lab today, doing something I haven't done in 20 years: photochemistry. I did some during my post-doc (with Bernd Giese, which is also the last time I've done free radical chemistry, at least on purpose). Since then, though, it's one of those things that's never come up. We had a mercury lamp apparatus in my grad school group, which I saw used a few times - one of which resulted in one of those nose-wrinkling "What's that funny smell?" moments, when the person running it forgot to turn on the cooling water. Don't do that. Medium-pressure mercury lamps can get pretty toasty. (They'll also permanently tan your eyeballs if you're so foolish as to look at them, I should also note, so don't do that, either!)
Most synthetic chemists will have had a brief experience with the technique - it's very appealing to think of doing chemistry just by shining a light on the reaction. But there can be a lot of variables - the sort of lamp you use (and thus the wavelengths and energy flux), various filters, sensitizing additives, hardware setups. Many people find that they use it for one reaction at some point, to make a specific compound, and never quite find a use for it again. In my experience, every decent-sized chemistry department has a photochemical rig of some sort, and no one quite knows where all its parts are.
That's probably a shame. There are a lot of unusual and interesting reactions that can be done photochemically - if you like 3- and 4-membered rings, this is certainly a field you should look into. I can recommend this recent bookas a general review of the field, for anyone who's thinking about it. We'll see how much use I get out of my current setup, but for now, I'm happily blasting away with the ultraviolet. . .
Update: blasting away is right! My cooling water dribbled down and then cut out on me after I tried to turn it down a bit, and, well. . . now I'm cleaning melted goo off of the quartz. A razor blade is working pretty well, but that's no way to treat a working piece of equipment.
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