STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who is synthesizing crude-oil alternatives
Medicine, plastics, electronics — many of the products we rely on every day are created from the synthetic processing of organic molecules. Crude oil is often the starting material in this process.
That’s why Concordia’s fORGione research group is looking at developing more efficient ways to create, or synthesize, these molecules. One of its members, Franklin Chacón Huete, is focused on making the process more sustainable.
In his experiments, he uses biomass-derived starting materials like corn stover and sugar cane as an alternative to petroleum feedstocks (raw material to supply a machine or industrial process).
‘As organic chemists, we have a toolbox of reactions’
How does this specific image (top right) relate to your research at Concordia?
This image shows one of the labs the fORGione research group uses. We focus on the development of synthetic methodologies that would allow us to construct molecules more efficiently. I synthesize small molecules with multiple potential applications in diverse fields including pharmaceuticals, material sciences and polymer chemistry.
The most important part of my research is that it’s based completely on starting materials that are derived from biomass, meaning that they are obtained from organic sources considered waste.
These include corn stover — the stalks, leaves and cobs that remain in fields after the corn harvest — or the fibrous matter that remains after crushing sugar cane called bagasse. These biomass-derived starting materials are alternatives to more commonly used petroleum feedstocks.
What is the hoped-for result of your project?
In our everyday life, we are exposed to products that are derived from the synthetic processing of organic molecules, including medicines, plastics (polymers in general) and the electronic components of devices.
It’s no secret that the main resource of the synthetic chemistry industry is petroleum feedstocks. Therefore, there’s an imperative to find new sustainable sources for starting materials.
We want to provide a platform where industries can transfer some of their chemical synthesis processes from a petroleum-based methodology to a more sustainable biomass-based system.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your research? What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?
Perseverance is key. Finding the right conditions for reactions to occur requires extensive optimization and it can sometimes take years before you achieve improvements.
The most important thing is to keep an open mind to all the alternatives and the different ways to obtain targets. As organic chemists, we have a toolbox of reactions that we use when we’re creating molecules.
Our research tries to enrich this toolbox by adding new components, so that chemists can construct their molecules not only more easily and with less impact to the environment, but also from sources that are not petroleum derived.
The kind of molecules we build in our lab are very versatile and can therefore be broadly applied. Uses can range from electronic devices like screens, smartphones and computers to potential drug candidates in the pharmaceutical industry.
What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to get involved in this field?
I grew up in a small town in Costa Rica, surrounded by coffee plantations and the rain forest. Since I was a kid, I was always interested in doing research. I have been influenced by several inspiring people, starting with my parents, who always encouraged me to follow my dreams.
While doing my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to volunteer in an organic synthesis lab, which inspired me to continue onto graduate studies in this field. It gave me the background knowledge to come to Concordia to pursue my PhD.
How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?
Synthetic organic chemistry has made huge advances in the last decades, but we’re far from being in any real competition with the main producer of complex organic molecules — nature.
There is vast unexplored territory that needs passionate and committed students to continue advancing new and smart approaches for the construction of molecules. All science and technology students interested in getting involved in organic synthesis should approach the professors conducting research in this field.
But my main advice is to be patient. You must be prepared to think of ideas inspired by scientific publications, apply them in the lab and evaluate the subsequent results that will lead to an appropriate conclusion. And you have to repeat this process many times, keeping an open mind to non-classical approaches to solve problems that arise.
What do you like best about being at Concordia?
As an international student, you can immerse yourself in a multicultural environment that not only gives you an outstanding education, but also the opportunity to get involved with many activities outside of your studies.
I could not have asked to be in a better research group, with the support of all my colleagues and Pat Forgione, an excellent supervisor.
How is your team involved in Science Odyssey?
I am one of the main organizers of a Science Odyssey event called Science Fact and Fictions on May 16. It’s a panel that intends to attract people from all backgrounds and ages.
Researchers with expertise in different fields will discuss the scientific facts behind movies, comic books, common myths and fictional characters.
Are there any partners, agencies or other sources of funding and support attached to your research?
Many agencies are involved in the funding of our research, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Fonds de recherche du Québec, Nature et Technologies (FRQNT) and the Réseau québécois de recherche sur les médicaments (RQRM).
Our group belongs to a multi-university research network called the Centre in Green Chemistry and Catalysis. It’s made up of many institutions across Quebec and Ontario and has the mission of promoting and emphasizing green initiatives applied to the synthetic chemistry community.
Find out more about Science Odyssey at Concordia.