Who Needs Lab-Based Synthetic Chemists?

Back in 2013 I was a postdoc at the University of Tokyo – when I wasn’t working hard in the laboratory, eating sushi or participating in karaoke, I encountered a paper that fascinated me; ‘Combining 3D printing and liquid handling to produce user-friendly reactionware for chemical synthesis and purification’ was the title of the article.1 The group of Lee Cronin at The University of Glasgow described the fabrication of a multi-chamber reaction vessel, with each region having different catalysts printed onto its surface – in this case Montmorillonite K10 and Pd/C (Figure 1). Building up around the loaded base layer and subsequent sealing of the entire unit allowed, after 90 degree rotations, the synthesis of 3a and 3b (Figure 3) via an initial acid-catalysed Diels-Alder cyclisation, imine formation and subsequent reduction over palladium on carbon with triethylsilane.


Figure 1: Fabrication of Reaction Vessel1

A schematic of the reaction vessel can be seen in Figures 2 & 3. The first split chamber contains solutions of the initial reactants. When rotated by 90o, the two solutions combine in a second chamber that has been layered with Montmorillonite K10. Once the first reaction is complete (5 h), the box is rotated again by 90o in order to initiate imine formation. A third rotation by 90o passes the solution over a printed surface of palladium on carbon in the presence of triethylsilane, which acts to reduce the imine to the corresponding amine. The crude mixture is finally passed through a silica plug to give the desired final products in yields similar to those utilising traditional glassware (32% vs 40% for 3a, 30% vs 38% for 3b).


Figure 2: Schematic of Reaction Vessel1


Figure 3: Rotation and Reaction in Separated Chambers1


So, with the above in mind, do we really need lab-based synthetic chemists? Probably – the current range of reactions applicable to this technology is rather limited to robust and well established chemistry; mixtures that are happy to be left under atmospheric conditions, in the presence of water and without proper temperature regulation. However, although there are currently quite a few limitations, I do feel that perhaps after optimisation by a trained scientist, people unfamiliar with advanced synthesis techniques or liquid handling will be able to synthesise pure compounds (medicinally relevant or not) by picking up a box from the shelf and following instructions like one might do with piece of flat-packed furniture from one of the world’s favourite Swedish stores – surely nothing can go wrong with that?


Blog written by: Mark Honey



  1. P.J Kitson,   M.D. Symes,   V. Dragone and  L. Cronin  Chem. Sci., 2013,4, 3099-3103






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