This month’s ‘in your element’ article (subscription required) is from Matthew Hartings (or @sciencegeist as he is known on Twitter) who proposes the bold idea that, rather than carbon, it is palladium that has assumed the role of most important element in many a famous organic reaction. And so he goes on to elaborate — and it appears that he does have a point. Think of some coupling reactions that were recognized by the Nobel prize in Chemistry two years ago, and of the Wacker process.
Another interesting aspect in the history of palladium is that its incredibly practical role initially stemmed from curiosity. Francis Phillips, Professor at Western University (which now goes by the name of the University of Pittsburgh), came across an example of palladium’s catalytic activity as early as 1894, while studying gases in Pennsylvania. Of course, he didn’t exactly start using palladium to couple all sorts of organic molecules through carbon–carbon bonds, and others must be credited for their role in understanding and developing this reactivity — read the article to find out the roles in particular of Smidt and Heck. But still, in 1894 Phillips had described the reaction of olefins over palladium and noted that no CO2 was formed. The rest, as they say, is palladium-catalyzed chemistry.
I just love old manuscripts — of course I like brand new ones, too! I see these a lot more often — and so I went and located here this PDF of the American Chemical Journal in which the work of Phillips appeared. Jump to the pages 163 and 255 to find out more about the oxidation and chemical properties of gases.
Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)