What if you tried a chemical experiment and it failed? Would you do it over? What if it failed 1,200 times? Most of us would give up way before that! But Tobias Ritter, a chemistry professor and researcher at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., kept experimenting.
Ritter was looking for an effective way to bind fluorine atoms to large molecules, such as medicines. Adding fluorine atoms can make the medicine molecule work better in the body, but adding fluorine atoms to large organic molecules is difficult and usually requires the presence of a catalyst—a substance that promotes reactions, but is not consumed in the reaction.Tobias Ritter Copyright ©
Catalysts are involved in most chemical reactions. It is estimated that 90% of all commercially produced chemical products involve catalysts. For example, the catalytic converter in your car has finely ground palladium, platinum or rhodium to act as a catalyst in removing pollutants from the exhaust.
Ritter wanted to find a catalyst that would help to add fluorine atoms to medicine molecules. His group experimented with several metal catalysts at different concentrations. One early success was with palladium. The experiment yielded 1% of the theoretical yield. Not a great yield, but it showed that the right catalyst could be found!
Ritter switched to silver oxide as a catalyst. The reaction yield jumped to 90%--like suddenly making an “A” on a test after completely failing an earlier one. Ritter and his group are now refining the technique and trying it on different medicines.
Ritter was awarded the Catalysis Award from BASF, a prominent chemical company, and he was included in Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 list, honoring their top ten innovators for the year.