Project Management

The Mitsunobu Reaction

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Richard Maltzman
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For those of you who follow the Big Bang Theory, you know that they title each episode of the show with a theme name that sounds like a subject of a lecture at an MIT PhD-level course.  Examples of episode names are:

  • “The Codpiece Topology"
  • "The Barbarian Sublimation"
  • "The Griffin Equivalency"
  • "The Euclid Alternative"
  • "The Cooper–Nowitzki Theorem"
  • "The White Asparagus Triangulation"
  • “The Vartabedian Conundrum"

An article in Nature caught my attention, partially because it mentions (see the title) a chemical reaction with such a name.

This particular reaction has to do with the process of synthesizing pharmaceuticals.  The alcohols they use have to be activated by the addition of other chemicals in these industrial contexts.  The process to do that activation is called the Mitsunobu reaction.  This process requires two activating chemicals, one of which is explosive.  It also generates two byproducts, one of which is toxic.

You can find an explanation that is way, WAY beyond the scope of this blog here, and there is a diagram of the reaction below.

There’s also a video tutorial here:

The bottom line is that this is not exactly a sustainably oriented process.

Striving to improve the process (which is really the point of this blog post), scientists at the University of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom, including Ross Denton, used a compound called a phosphine oxide to start the reaction, instead.  This removes the explosive element from the process, and uses one of the byproducts to regenerate the original catalyst, and, leaves behind nothing but water as a final byproduct.

Through this new process, the phosphine oxide will allow for a much more environmentally-friendly process to produce pharmaceuticals and fertilizers.

Project managers should be on the lookout for process improvements such as this and for sustainability, in general, in their projects.  Sometimes a breakthrough like this is only a Big Bang theory away!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: September 29, 2019 10:15 PM | Permalink

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Interesting one. Thank you!!

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