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Robert H. Grubbs and Green Chemistry

Robert H. Grubbs (1942-2021), who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry said “there was great joy in making new molecules”.

An efficient method of carbon-carbon double bond formation was uncovered over 50 years ago when scientists Robert Grubbs, Yves Chauvin, and Richard Schrock began their pioneering research into metal-catalyzed reactions. Their catalytic reaction is known as olefin (or alkene) metathesis. Schrock discovered that two metals, tungsten, and molybdenum, were effective catalysts in producing metathesis, which means “changing places.” The metals caused carbon bonds in molecules to break apart and then rearrange themselves in different ways, creating new chemical bonds. In 1992, Dr. Grubbs improved the process by demonstrating that another metal, ruthenium, was a more stable catalyst and was easily adapted for use in air, water, or alcohol. By controlling the catalyst used, it became possible to synthesize polymers with specialized structures and functional capabilities, including cyclic olefins, alternating copolymers, and multiblock copolymers. Using catalysts allows chemists to speed up chemical transformations and lower the cost of what was previously complicated multi-step industrial processes

Why does it matter to us? Because new molecules can be very helpful. We love the complex chemicals that plants make (for their own purposes) that are great for our skin. Other plant chemicals may be just the answer we need to stop cancer from spreading or decrease inflammation. But chemists can improve on those natural compounds by moving an atom from here to over there, taking away some side effects, or improving on the binding to a cell receptor. Chemists do all of that and Dr. Grubbs introduced changes in the methodology that reduce the amount of hazardous industrial waste in the environment. Green (sustainable) chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances, the term applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, use, and ultimate disposal.

I love new molecules too. Vive la Green Chemistry! But before you introduce them to a skincare product, show me that they are safe!