Caltech chemists have produced a group of silicon-containing organic chemicals. The resulting organic molecules could serve as powerful chemical building blocks for medicinal chemists to use in the creation of new pharmaceuticals.

Without relying on expensive precious metal catalysts, the new technique uses the cheap, readily available potassium tert-butoxide as a catalyst. The white, free-flowing powder— similar to common table salt in appearance — provides a straightforward and environmentally friendly way to run a reaction that involves replacing a carbon–hydrogen bond with a carbon–silicon bond to produce the organic molecules known as organosilanes.

The finding marks one of the first cases in which catalysis — the use of catalysts to make certain reactions occur faster, more readily, or at all — moves away from being a practice that is fundamentally unsustainable. While the precious metals in most catalysts are rare and could eventually run out, potassium is an abundant element on Earth.

To demonstrate the industrial viability of the process, the Caltech team used the method to synthesize nearly 150 grams of a valuable organosilane — the largest amount of this chemical product that has been produced by a single catalytic reaction. The reaction required no solvent, generated hydrogen gas as the only byproduct, and proceeded at 45°C — the lowest reported temperature at which this reaction has successfully run, to date.