Sustainable Science

Interview: Green Chemist explains his interest in nitrogen containing compounds

By: Kaitlin Lovering

Damon Gilmour is a graduate student at UBC working under the supervision of Dr. Laurel Schafer. Green Chem UBC spoke with Damon about his research and interest in sustainable science.


As pictured above, Damon loves working in the glove box.

Damon’s research aims to develop catalytic methods to produce structurally diverse small molecules and polymers that all contain nitrogen. Though nitrogen containing compounds are important, they are relatively unexplored synthetically. Damon works to understand and harness their potential applications.

Why is nitrogen so important? Nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for plants and a common component of many biological systems. Proteins, for example, are between 13 and 19 % nitrogen by weight. The prevalence and biological relevance of nitrogen-containing compounds make them important in pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

Nitrogen gas is also ubiquitous in the atmosphere. Though 78 % of the air with breath is N2, transforming N2 from inert gas to chemically accessible forms accounts for 1-3% of total global energy usage.

Even after nitrogen has been transformed into an accessible compound, additional manipulations are challenging.  Most synthetic changes to nitrogen containing compounds generally require protecting groups and/or stoichiometric equivalents of reactants.

Use of protection groups and stoichiometric equivalents violates two of the principles of green chemistry. That is why Damon’s research focuses on developing catalytic methods to modify nitrogen compounds. Nitrogen compounds, however, present unique challenges because, as Damon explained, nitrogen in organic and inorganic compounds tends to have a lone pair of electrons. That unbound pair makes nitrogen ‘sticky’ and very likely to interact with the late transition metals often used in catalysis.

Damon instead uses early transition metals to make his compounds. He says that early transition metals are air and moisture sensitive, pyrophoric, and kinetically labile. Yet this ease of degradation presents a challenge that Damon enjoys. He says that the unique challenges of inorganic synthesis make it more rewarding.

Another benefit of Damon’s research is the high value of his end products relative to the value of the starting materials. He hopes that, though his starting materials are derived from petrochemicals, by transforming those products with less waste and energy into high-value products, there is will a net benefit.

Damon’s interest in green chemistry began with an interest in environmental science. As a life-long inhabitant of the west coast, he grew up in a community that values the environment and sees green chemistry as his way to address environmental concerns. He said sustainable science is the ‘difference between living on a space station and living in a house’; on the space station, it is important to use all your resources sustainably. Damon’s research will help all of us be able to live in our homes for longer.

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