Reagents to go… making an ‘Uber’ for chemistry

Modern laboratory science relies heavily on the availability of a wide range of chemical materials developed for specific tasks. Examples include reagents and catalysts for important chemical transformations, or linker molecules for protein binding studies.

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With advances in the development of new reaction methodologies and synthesis planning, the repertoire of the synthetic chemist has never been so large. But what about those annoyingly simple, yet hard to make, crucial molecules that are used as vital reagents, or short shelf life materials? Is it possible to simplify synthetic access and the supply chains for these molecules? 

Useful as they are, these chemicals must come from somewhere and the range and diversity of 'precision' reagents is now so great that it is has become impractical for any one laboratory to hold a stock of all the materials they might need. Often these chemicals degrade over time giving a dilemma, invest in trained synthetic chemists to make these materials on demand, or buy them from chemical suppliers, often at prices much higher than the cost of the starting materials required to prepare them in-house. 

We have long been fascinated by the idea of digitizing synthetic chemistry allowing us to produce compounds using a 'digital' blue-print for the synthesis from very simple reagents. Our vision was for a system that could 3D print factories for molecules, even drugs, on demand. To do this we designed the concept of 3D printed reactionware – literally 3D printed cartridges for the synthesis of certain important chemicals that integrate all the unit operations – in sequence – in a continuous fluidically connected reactor system with in built purification. We presented the concept first in Science over a year ago, but could this be applied to chemicals needed on demand in the laboratory? To explore this, we chose three example products; an NHS-diazirine linker, a palladium precatalyst and the Dess Martin periodinane oxidant, which are widely purchased from chemical suppliers, and a polyoxometalate cluster that is increasing in popularity but not commercially available. Also, in the case of the commercially available reagents, the starting materials are drastically cheaper to purchase than the final products. Having chosen these candidates we have produced individual cartridges, allowing users to reliably produce quantities of the products with minimal interactions, and demonstrated that the products of these cartridges produce material of quality equal to the commercially available materials.

The approach we take in this new paper (DOI:10.1038/s41467-019-13328-6) gives laboratories the option of a low-tech, low expertise, almost automactic, method of producing high-spec chemical reagents which can be synthesised and used ‘on-demand’, even in laboratories not used to carrying out complex chemical synthesis. This system has an added advantage that, as the synthesis cartridges are fabricated by 3D printing, the cartridges exist as digital files which can be shared over the internet and refabricated on-demand at any laboratory which needs them.

We aim to enable other groups to adopt our approach and develop their own synthesis cartridges for products which they have to synthesise, and a growing community of developers can help reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of the material toolkits necessary for modern Laboratory science. Stay tuned for software that will allow the synthetic chemist to design the reactionware cartridges in seconds without specialist knowledge. We are going to also share the code to make the 3D printing files on a 3D printing reactionware website in the coming weeks. 

If you are interested and want to try it, just get in touch.

This post was written by Lee Cronin and Philip Kitson, School of Chemistry, University of Glasgow, UK.

Lee Cronin

Regius Professor of Chemistry, University of Glasgow