Leaving Eindhoven University of Technology, Joining University of Amsterdam

I have some very exciting news to share with you: The Noel Research Group will move up North and join the Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS) at the University of Amsterdam, where I will be promoted to Full Professor and be the chair of Flow Chemistry. The move is planned for September 1st of this year, so quite rapidly.

What can you expect from us at UvA? Our mission has always been to extend the available chemical space by embracing technology to the fullest extent. For sure, we will keep doing that using our key technology, flow chemistry! But we would not move if there were no exciting new opportunities. HIMS has a strong hub of homogeneous catalysis with a.o. the groups of Profs. Joost Reek, Bas de Bruin, Tati Fernández-Ibáñez and Francesco Mutti. We foresee some strong interactions with their teams in the years to come. So keep an eye on our website and social media channels.

Via this way, I also would like to thank the colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology. They gave me the chance to kick start my academic career and supported me all the way, even now with the transfer to Amsterdam. Needless to say that I will miss the colleagues and the great atmosphere in the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry department.

Finally, thank you to everyone for the support and faith that has brought us to this moment.

Tim

July 30, 2020

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Turning on the Light Alkanes: from Fuel to Valuable Reagents

Hot off the press! Our latest work on photochemical activation of light alkanes just appeared in Science (https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abb4688). We are stoked to present our group’s first Science paper to the community. In this blog article, we would like to discuss the human story behind this amazing project.

New project, new challenge

After our first project on the C(sp3)–H oxidation using decatungstate-photocatalysis, published almost two years ago in Angewandte Chemie (https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.201800818), we were looking for a new challenge where we could exploit the potential of this potent hydrogen atom transfer (HAT) catalyst. The NRG-TBADTeam (nickname of the subgroup dedicated to TBADT chemistry) focused its attention to a valuable -yet absent in organic synthesis- class of gasses which could benefit from continuous-flow microreactor technology: the volatile alkanes, such as methane, ethane, propane and butane. These compounds are mostly burned to release its energy for heating applications or propulsion, while in the chemical industry they are used as inexpensive starting materials for the synthesis of haloalkanes or polymer monomers (e.g. ethylene). Hence, we wondered if we could activate these inert and insoluble gasses with TBADT and immediately engage them in synthetically-useful transformations of interest to the organic chemistry community. Such a strategy would allow us to bypass the current toxic halogenation industry.

We commenced our investigations with propane and borrowed a bottle of high purity propane from our TU/e colleague Prof. F. Gallucci. To our delight, we could immediately spot some interesting reactivity. We were particularly delighted by the excellent selectivity provided by decatungstate for the most substituted carbon of propane (86:14 ratio for the instalment of a secondary propyl versus primary propyl moiety). At that point, master student Klaas van der Wal joined the group and together with him the real optimization commenced. Klaas did an amazing job, especially in the design of the flow setup, which was crucial to bring the gaseous reactants into contact with the soluble catalyst and substrates, and the initial reactivity screening. He received a great score for his MSc defense (Figure 1). However, we were not done yet!

Figure 1. TU/e M.Sc. student Klaas in action: left) at the Master thesis presentation and defence; right) graduation ceremony.

Shine brighter

Even if an extensive optimization was already conducted at that point, we managed to run our reactions only in stop-flow mode to reach full conversion. We realized that a more powerful light source was needed to reduce the reaction time. More photons were going to be crucial in order to move to a continuous operation of the flow reactor. For this reason, we decided to employ a Vapourtec setup, which was provided to us by Vapourtec’s CEO Duncan Guthrie and Dr. Manuel Nuño. Thanks to this photochemical flow system equipped with a powerful 365 nm LED set (60 W or 150 W, the latter high power 365 nm light source was even a prototype which proved crucial in our reaction discovery), we could easily move to a continuous-flow mode and complete our last screening.

At that point, Tim asked Yuchao Deng, who was a visiting Chinese PhD student in our lab, to join the TBADTeam. With her hard work and dedication, we were able to rapidly carry out the propane optimization and to identify the substrate scope. During the scope exploration, the input from Profs. Maurizio Fagnoni and Davide Ravelli was of great value to make rapid progress. They have been working with this catalyst for many years and TBADT has essentially no secrets for them anymore.

Next, we evaluated a variety of different alkane gases, starting with isobutane. Activation of isobutane led to a new methodology which allowed to introduce tert-butyl groups in a straightforward and selective fashion (96:4, tert butyl versus isobutyl).

Figure 2. Gabriele and Yuchao working with the Vapourtec setup.

Methane? Yes, we can!

We must acknowledge that at point we were quite satisfied with the results but we were still anxious as two formidable challenges laid ahead of us: the activation of ethane and methane. These alkanes possess the strongest C(sp3)–H bonds known in Nature and we were not sure whether decatungstate would be able to cleave those selectively… Methane for example has been a daunting challenge for many decades, occupying many researchers without much success so far. Cleaving methane’s C(sp3)–H bonds requires extremely high temperatures (> 500 C) and is only industrially done for a few processes.

For ethane, we needed to crank up the pressure a bit to get it into a liquid state. However, overall the activation went pretty smooth and only minor optimization was required to obtain a satisfactory scope.

Finally, we were ready to take on the challenge of methane. If this one would work, we knew it would be a big deal. And … we had probably a good shot to get it into a true top journal. In our first attempts, we could spot the right product only in traces. We realized that the major products obtained were propylated adducts or compounds derived from the activation of acetonitrile. The presence of propylated compounds puzzled us for a while. However, we realized that the gas line might still contain some propane from our previous experiments. Indeed, by applying vacuum on the gas lines, we could remove traces of condensed propane fairly quickly. With propylation being resolved, we saw that the HAT on acetonitrile was still prominent, and only a low yield was observed for the desired methylated product. We then realized that activation of acetonitrile was favoured over the activation of methane. Even if this result could be expected based on BDE, we originally thought that the polarity mismatch of the C-H bonds of acetonitrile would prevent this side reaction. This was indeed the case for butane, propane and ethane but not for the strongest C–H bonds present in methane. To circumvent this, we employed d3-acetonitrile. Once we did that, we finally obtained the desired products in synthetically useful yields. After isolating our first methylated molecule, Yuchao and I were so happy that I cannot even describe it in words. We repeated at least a thousand times “WE DID IT!” jumping all over the lab. Definitely, that was not a quiet day for our labmates.

Hard times, high hopes

When we were wrapping up our experiments, the pandemic crisis was advancing very fast. As an Italian, I was extremely aware of the potential threat of COVID-19. Yuchao was even more scared than I was, especially because her time in the NRG group was almost over and she would not be able to go back to China as her flights got systematically cancelled. Despite the COVID stress, we completed all the necessary experiments. Tim wrote the paper and submitted it to Science on February 26, a couple of weeks before the inevitable lockdown of our group (March 13, 2020). Then we waited, isolated at home.

On April 7, we got news! We received a request to submit a revision, so not rejected. What a relief! After reading the feedback from the referees, we were cautiously optimistic. Yet we were also scared! We felt we could smell our first paper in Science and we did not want to mess it up. After some Zoom calls with all co-authors, we submitted a carefully revised version and waited again, all of us still sheltered in place. On May 6, 2020, we finally got the acceptance letter (Figure 3, Top). As the email came in quite late in Europe, Tim was already sleeping. On May 7 at 6.20 AM, he send me via WhatsApp some very exciting messages (Figure 3, Bottom).

Figure 3. Top: Email with the long awaited final decision. Our first paper in Science is a fact. Bottom: WhatsApp conversation between Tim and myself (Gabriele Laudadio).

We are now July 2nd, almost two months later. The paper just got published in the latest issue of Science. But I still need to pinch myself regularly to know I am not dreaming. I will cherish these memories forever.

Ciao,

Gabriele

 

The paper discussed in this blog was published as “C(sp3)–H functionalizations of light hydrocarbons using decatungstate photocatalysis in flow”. by Gabriele Laudadio, Yuchao Deng, Klaas van der Wal, Davide Ravelli, Manuel Nuño, Maurizio Fagnoni, Duncan Guthrie, Yuhan Sun, and Timothy Noël, Science 2020, DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4688.

Tim Presented a Commemoration of Prof. Jun-ichi Yoshida’s Work at the Flow Chemistry Europe 2020 in Cambridge

During the Flow Chemistry Europe 2020 (Cambridge), Tim has used his speaker slot to commemorate our colleague and friend Prof. Jun-ichi Yoshida, who passed away on Saturday, September 14, 2019.  He was one of our regional editors at Journal of Flow Chemistry. He also served as the president of the National Institute of Technology Suzuka College and was emeritus professor of Kyoto University. Most of all we will remember Prof. Yoshida for his excellent work in Flow Chemistry. He coined the term “Flash Chemistry” for ultrafast reactions which can be done selectively in microreactors by taking advantage of the fast mixing and the excellent heat control. He also pioneered the so-called “cation pool” method, which allowed to accumulate anodically radical cations at low temperature. These could be subsequently converted in the presence of nucleophiles in a very controlled and reliable fashion.

Generally, one cannot overstate the achievements of Prof. Yoshida in Flow Chemistry. He can rightfully be called one of the pioneers and legends of the field. Many of us, including myself, have found inspiration in his early work and have tried to follow his lead at the outset of our career.

On a personnel level, I always enjoyed talking to Jun-ichi. He was very supportive to young flow chemists. He was very social and loved drinking a good glass of wine or sake.

Prof. Yoshida’s death is a great loss for the scientific community and we will miss him dearly.

The lecture can be downloaded as pdf using the following link: Talk_YoshidaMemorial

Timothy Noël

Flow Chemistry Europe 2020, Cambridge (UK); March 3, 2020

Making Sulfonamides via Electrochemistry by Activating Commodity Chemicals

Our most recent paper dealing with the electrochemical synthesis of sulfonamides was just published in Journal of American Chemical Society (DOI: 10.1021/jacs.9b02266). For our group, it was the first paper in this prestigious journal and we are particularly proud of the work itself. It has been an interesting project which required a lot of hard work by many co-authors and we are happy to take you today behind the scenes and providing you with some insights in the discovery process.

Figure 1. Graphical abstract of our “Sulfonamide synthesis through electrochemical oxidative coupling of amines and thiols”.

In search of inspiration

Our group is mostly known for its work on flow photochemistry but about three years ago, we started getting interested in electrochemistry. For us, electrochemistry seemed like a complementary activation mode compared to photoredox catalysis, both allowing to generate synthetically useful radicals. In addition, electrochemical setups are often affected by process-related problems, like mass- and heat-transfer limitations, which was for us the proof that a technological solution would of great added value.

After our first paper on the electrochemical oxidation of thioethers and thiols,1 we decided to design a new electrochemical flow microreactor to carry out our chemistry in a more reliable and scalable way.2 In the meantime, we started thinking about new electrochemical transformations that we could develop. The group’s aim is to develop new, useful synthetic methodology and utilize cutting-edge technology to give a further boost to the chemistry. At that time, our experience on electrochemistry was still very rudimentary and we were reading a lot of different publications to get a bit an image of the field. Ultimately, we found an amazing review entitled “Nonaromatic Aminium Radicals”.3 After reading this review carefully, we had an idea: what if we try to make sulfenamides electrochemically and then further oxidize these species to make sulfonamides? We had already some expertise with the oxidation of thioethers and if we could combine both the S–N coupling with the subsequent oxidation of the sulfur, we had a great method that allowed us to activate commodity chemicals, such as thiols and amines. Moreover, sulfonamides are interesting moieties which are quite common in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Recently, a couple of interesting methods to prepare or functionalize sulfonamides appeared in the literature, incl. the work of Willis4 and MacMillan.5 Taken all of this information together, we had the feeling that this project would be both challenging and of high interest to the synthetic community.

Figure 2. Original idea for the synthesis of sulfonamides.

A working reaction = A wedding present for Gabriele

At that time, Lisa Struik joined our group for her master thesis. Initially, she worked on the experimental validation of our electrochemical flow reactor.2 When that project was finalized, we suggested her to try this idea we had on the synthesis of sulfonamides. Eager to work on this new project, she started with the experiments. One of the first things she said was the following: “We have a huge problem: the reaction is forming a solid and crashes out in pure acetonitrile. I can NOT carry this out in flow!” Our answer to this was “It is probably just the acid-base adduct, just add a bit of water and it will be fine”. Indeed that solved the issue pretty well and not only that, it really boosted the reactivity significantly. To our delight, the results were almost immediately perfect. You cannot imagine how excited we were when we saw that the major product was not the sulfenamide, but the sulfonamide directly!!! This gave us the confidence to increase our research efforts: We started right away with the further optimization and got some help from Christiane Schotten. Christiane was a visiting PhD student coming from the Browne group at Cardiff University and she helped us to test different reaction conditions, residence times, mediators and acids.

Once we had the optimal reaction conditions in hand, Christiane and Lisa started working on the substrate scope. Gabriele had to take a short break at that point as he got married and went on honeymoon on a cruise. Gabriele still remembers that every time they went on land he was anxious to check his emails to know if there was any progress. Upon his return, we had to say goodbye to Christiane and Lisa and for a while, Gabriele had to work alone on the scope. Luckily, Efstathios Barmpoutsis (AKA Stathis), another master student, joined the project, rolled up his sleeves and got immediately to work. It was at that point that we realized how crucial it was to clean the electrodes thoroughly in between reactions. If you don’t do that, yields drop gradually and the results are difficult to reproduce. However, with the proper cleaning, as we described in detail in the Supporting Information of our manuscript, this issue is completely overcome and highly reproducible results are obtained. A little bit later another issue arose: heterocyclic arenes were completely unreactive under our reaction conditions (Figure 3). After some optimization of the reaction conditions, we found that the reaction could be carried out when 1 equiv. of pyridine was added to the reaction mixture. We surmise that pyridine functions mainly as an electron mediator. To be sure, we also evaluated whether its presence was required in the other reactions we already screened but there it did not prove to be essential.

Figure 3. Optimization of heteroaromatic compounds

While Stathis and Gabriele were working on the reaction scope, an Erasmus student Sebastian Govaerts joined the team. (Basically, he returned to our group as he previously worked with Gabriele on the sp3 C–H oxidation project.6) He focused mainly on the batch scope as we wanted a thorough comparison with the results obtained in flow. In most cases, the yields were lower in batch and the reaction required 24 h and 100 mol% of supporting electrolyte to reach full conversion. In flow, the reaction was done within 5 min and needed only 10 mol% of supporting electrolyte. However, batch does have its advantages. For those reactions that were very slow or resulted in precipitate formation, we preferred the batch procedure.

 

Figure 4. (Left) Electrochemical batch reactor; (Right) Electrochemical flow reactor

With the finish line in sight – What is the mechanism?

Within sight of the finish line, it was time to gain some mechanistic understanding. Kinetic experiments revealed that the thiol dimerizes within 20 seconds to the corresponding disulfide. This observation indicates that some of the most odorous thiols can be replaced by their corresponding disulfide, a feature most chemists will be happy about. Next, Gabriele started with some quenching experiments and he was able to rapidly trap the aminium radical. With that preliminary result in hand, we were almost sure that the sulfenamide was one of the intermediates in our transformation. Indeed, we were able to isolate some sulfenamide and when subjected to our reaction conditions, the targeted sulfonamide was obtained in quantitative yield.

Finally, we had to do some cyclic voltammetry. Using a potentiostat, Gabriele recorded spectra of all relevant starting materials, including amines, thiols and disulfides. Despite some hints, it proved to be not enough evidence to pinpoint the entire mechanism. Then he decided to “titrate” thiophenol with cyclohexylamine and recorded different spectra. We firmly believe in the famous Latin maxim “Fortuna audaces iuvat”, which means literally “fortune favours the bold”. Indeed, at a certain moment, we found some white precipitate in the cell. It was a Friday evening, around 8 pm. Gabriele filtered the precipitate and ran to the NMR: indeed, it was the cyclohexylammonium thiophenolate (Figure 5), as was also observed by Lisa. And, when we tried to record the cyclic voltammogram of that compound, we knew that we had finally found the missing piece (Figure 6). We still carried out some additional control experiments to be 100% sure (you can find them in the supporting information of the paper) but from that moment on we knew the work in the lab was basically done.

Figure 5. Picture of the white solid and its 1H NMR spectrum

Figure 6. CV of cyclohexylammonium thiophenolate

A final word

The possibility to obtain complex moieties, such as sulfonamides, simply by stitching two commodity chemicals together using electrons is, in our opinion, a key feature of our electrochemical methodology. Moreover, we saw that microflow technology really made a difference in this transformation providing the experimentalist with practical reaction conditions and operational flexibility to rapidly investigate the reaction scope. This can be attributed to the small interelectrode gap (250 μm), the high mass transfer to the electrodes and the large electrode surface to volume ratio.

Currently, we are working hard to finish some more electrochemical methods of which we are really excited. So stay tuned and keep an eye on our group website and twitter accounts.

Ciao,

Gabriele and Tim

The paper discussed in this blog was published as “Sulfonamide synthesis through electrochemical oxidative coupling of amines and thiols”. by Gabriele Laudadio, Efstathios Barmpoutsis, Christiane Schotten, Lisa Struik, Sebastian Govaerts, Duncan L. Browne, and Timothy Noël, Journal of American Chemical Society 2019, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.9b02266

References:

[1] Laudadio, G.; Straathof, N. J. W.; Lanting, M. D.; Knoops, B.; Hessel, V.; Noël, T. Green Chem. 2017, 19 (17), 4061–4066.

[2] Laudadio, G.; de Smet, W.; Struik, L.; Cao, Y.; Noël, T. J. Flow Chem. 2018, 8 (3–4), 157–165.

[3] Chow, Y. L.; Danen, W. C.; Nelsen, S. F.; Rosenblatt, D. H. Chem. Rev. 1978, 78 (3), 243–274.

[4] Chen, Y.; Murray, P. R. D.; Davies, A. T.; Willis, M. C. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2018, 140, 8781-8787.

[5] Kim, T.; McCarver, S. J.; Lee, C.; MacMillan, D. W. C. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2018, 57, 3488-3492.

[6] Laudadio, G.; Govaerts, S.; Wang, Y.; Ravelli, D.; Koolman, H. F.; Fagnoni, M.; Djuric, S. W.; Noël, T. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2018, 57, 4078-4082.