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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Nothing Says "Chemistry" Like Nonsense! | Main | An NMR Poster »

December 14, 2011

Now That's A Catalyst

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Posted by Derek

Sorry about the lack of posting today; it's been a busy one. But I do have something that follows up on one of my less useful chemical bulletins, the one the other day about using uranium catalysts. Ben Warner sends along this paper from his time at Los Alamos, and yes, that means what you think it means. You may have done the Meerwein-Pondorf-Verley reaction, but if you have, I'll bet that you wimped out with some laid-back aluminum compound.

But you could have used plutonium, and how does that make you feel? Uranium (III), as it turns out, just doesn't cut it. Accept nothing but plutonium, folks; you can't beat it. And I now return you to your regular research, which I hope has nothing to do with this post at all!

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. Curious Wavefunction on December 14, 2011 1:29 PM writes...

My mind boggles just thinking about the number of organometallic-related Nobel Prizes that will never be awarded because of wimpy concerns about national security. Lack of access to explosive, exotic, intensely radioactive metals will always haunt the organic chemist's conscience.

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2. Curious Wavefunction on December 14, 2011 1:33 PM writes...

My mind boggles just thinking about the number of organometallic-related Nobel Prizes that will never be awarded because of wimpy concerns about national security. Lack of access to explosive, exotic, intensely radioactive metals will always haunt the organic chemist's conscience.

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3. DrSAR on December 14, 2011 1:42 PM writes...

What isotope would they have used? Pu244 sounds benign but might not be available in useful quantities. I looked at the paper but they don't mention. Is that because it's too obvious or too nat'l-security-sensitive? How am I going to reproduce their experiments if they don't tell me !?

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4. RB Woodweird on December 14, 2011 3:09 PM writes...

Too bad 'van Boom's reagent' is already taken.

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5. Canageek on December 14, 2011 4:23 PM writes...

I still don't see the problem with the uranium catalyst-- You can easily use depleted uranium, so it would only be marginally more dangerous then lead, and you read about things far more dangerous then lead in the literature all the time. Heck, even natural abundance uranium is safe enough to handle without excessive protection.

Plutonium on the other hand...

It is a shame no one is doing hot-atom chemistry anymore. I found a very interesting book tucked away in our library about using radioactive decomposition in synthetic chemistry. You have to be careful that the bonds holding the radioisotope in place are stronger then the recoil energy, but given that you can make the molecule with one atom, wait a while, and have the molecule suddenly bound to a lighter atom. The downside is it is only practical for very small amounts, and you are limited by the half-life of the isotope; Long enough that you can make the molecule with the mother isotope, short enough you don't have to wait for years to get results.

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6. gippgig on December 14, 2011 4:46 PM writes...

Plutonium is unique. The early actinides behave like transition metals; the late ones like rare earths. Plutonium is right on the dividing line, which gives it really weird properties. A good article about this is "Plutonium An element at odds with itself", available at
I think any isotope would work; chemically they are virtually identical (altho short-lived isotopes do generate a lot of heat & ionizing radiation which can affect reactions).

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7. Marty McFly on December 15, 2011 2:28 PM writes...

Plutonium's phase changes are pretty bizarre. Also interesting is that it is warm to the touch, all the time. Even better, if you put a bit in a Delorean and drive 88 miles per hour, you can travel through time and accidentally prevent your parents from ever marrying. Cool stuff. Wish I had some.

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8. Tex on January 7, 2012 2:10 PM writes...

There are a few examples of papers I've read which employ the use of plutonium for structural or reactivity studies; in most cases, the papers include some kind of warning or hazard about plutonium. Regarding that, all of the aforementioned warnings have stated that weapons-grade plutonium was employed for those studies, (so most likely a mixture of Pu-239 and Pu-240). I say a mixture because as I'm sure anyone could imagine, the separation of one element from from another isotope of that element can be remarkably difficult. That being said, while I do work with other actinides up to uranium using a very typical organometallic lab, I would DEFINITELY not work with plutonium without having the proper lab and safety equipment installed and ready to go!

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