Enabling technology as a silo? Continuous flow

Following a look into flow photochemistry and electrochemistry and listening to some very strong challenges to how they fit into the bigger picture, I sat down with a few chemists who have always been forward thinkers into what the reality looks like. We discussed everything from combichem to the hardcore natural product total synthesis labs. In that process, I mentioned the article in Nature over the summer: Organic Synthesis: The robo-chemist as part the general collective.

So here is the summary:

1. Enabling technologies such as microwave and flow chemistry are wonderful and to be part of a sustainable future, education and infrastructure need to match the ideal of the technology for the most part. Chemists (and this is not a blanket over all) tend to hold their cards to their chest, rather than playing them, so as a personality it isn’t exactly what you would want as a starting point….but if convinced and educated on the value of the new “gadget” — we will call it that, then we might see a larger user base.

2. What about retrosynthetic analysis? This is an area we have all been trained to use, but what is the percentage of it is involved in our daily process? The group felt that it has become intuitive in the larger scope, but not manifested in all chemists. Not that different than the education and use argument. Let me know your thoughts on this — I am convinced today that in the US, it is not broadly used, whereas in other areas it is practiced a bit more.

3. Photochemistry or electrochemistry as specialties — can these areas find themselves in the day to day strategies as part of the technology tool? I think on the surface the answer is much like our goal across the spectrum — for so many years, the measureable for a year ended with the number of compounds made for the company, rather than the impact — clinical candidate, better route, cost savings. It’s hard to roll the dice against the grain and come up a winner — remember, the house always wins. For these two areas, we need a common system which will ensure a broad education and effective implementation for it to be used. The amount of new chemical space should be stamped on your lambskin degree so that you remember to use it.

4. The robo-chemist: Ah yes, a movement to automate both the hardware and now the software side — maybe it will allow the decision makers to concentrate on decisions. For the software side, it is apparent that they are putting the retrosynthetic portion into the process so that we have a best case scenario of things to do or prioritize….awesome, but it is still counter to the original premise…what is the basic nature of the chemist be it pharma, specialty chemicals, polymer, etc? These card holding players have been accustomed to a lack of sharing their toys without a benefit. Take a read through the article and comment back: there is a section on data collecting through electronic notebooks since we don’t share the things that don’t work. Personally, I am glass half empty here, since I can’t imagine enough traction even if the technology is there.

5. Europe, Asia and the US (apply the rest): In terms of enabling, most of the forward thinking has been in Europe and parts of Asia. The US is now building a framework, but is behind…..just use flow chemistry as an example. With over 2000 mid-level colleges teaching chemistry, a small percent have used microwave chemistry in their curriculum, and even less flow. Under the microscope, a hand few of the major schools in the US have implemented flow as a real bullet point in their teaching — oh sure a couple have, but not like Europe…..so it is safe to say that it is years away.

Of course we became less critical as the number of beers added up, and the hope was that we see change in the labs opening their budgets to better chemical methods. And the feeling is still that education will impact the process more than the number of units sold (maybe there is strong correlation — lots of press announcements). I praise the academic institutions who are charging forward with the new technologies and empowering their students to increase the footprint and thinking into becoming tomorrow’s synthetic enabling chemist.

Let me know your thoughts here……I know we all have some strong opinions in a number of these categories — and many that I didn’t summarize.


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