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International Year of Light - Magdalene Teh

Magdalene Teh

Tell us about your PhD project

Organic synthesis is an essential and important part of chemistry. The ability to connect atoms up in specific ways can give us compounds which have important uses, for example, drugs, pesticides and polymers/materials.

To be able to synthesise specific compounds, synthetic chemist utilise a wide range of reactions in order to get the right atoms connected in the right way.

The reactions that are used to make these compounds are constantly being developed to increase scope, yields and selectivity, as well as to reduce waste and cost. In order to develop these reactions, it is important to understand what happens when the reaction proceeds, and to find out what makes it work better/worse. Using this information, the reaction conditions can be improved.

One of the projects within the group involves looking at a gold-catalysed reaction to form a new bond between two carbon atoms. My research involves looking at one of the steps within the reaction; the oxidation of a gold (I) species with a hypervalent iodine oxidant to regenerate the active catalyst.

By working out what happens, we can start to have an idea of how the oxidant works. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to replace these iodine oxidants, as they generate a lot of waste, with more accessible and environmentally friendly oxidants, such as O2.

General scheme of the gold coupling reaction

General scheme of the gold coupling reaction

Why is light important to your research?

Although light is not directly needed in my research, it is useful in terms of the analysis. Spectroscopic techniques involve the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with molecules. Using a variety of different techniques, the identity of the compounds can be characterised.

Extending on this idea, we can use spectroscopy to ???take a peek??? at what is happening as the reaction progresses, as well as how fast the reactants are consumed/products are formed. This will start to give us an idea of how the reaction works and thus, how we can modify/improve it.

Electromagnetic spectrum, and the various techniques available in the group to monitor reactions

Electromagnetic spectrum, and the various techniques available in the group to monitor reactions (spectrum taken from NASA)

Describe your average day of PhD work here in the School of Chemistry

My day varies depending on which part of the project I am at. I am either in the lab synthesising the starting materials I need for my reaction, planning and running experiments to gain information on the reaction, or in the office analysing the results from my experiments.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not at work?

When I???m not working, I quite enjoy cycling and cheerleading, as well as socialising with people outside chemistry.

What's your favourite chemical reaction?

Probably not the most interesting of reactions to most, but my favourite transformation in chemistry is C-F activation, where the bond between carbon and fluorine is broken. It???s simple in concept, but challenging in practice, as the C-F bond is the strongest known single-bond to carbon. Furthermore, it is important to be able to break this bond selectively in the presence of much weaker C-H bonds.

This is a relatively new area in chemistry, and there are a lot of challenges ahead. However, mechanistic experiments together with computational methods have provided an insight into this process. This will hopefully aid progress in this area so that the field can be advanced from curiosity to practical applications.

Activation of C-F bond with a Nickel complex

Activation of C-F bond with a Nickel complex