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Interstellar Chemical Tamed in The Lab at UCR

A triangular molecule, resembling an abundant product detected in outer space, may one day find important applications on planet Earth.

Chemists at the University of California, Riverside have created in the laboratory a type of molecule thought to exist only in interstellar space, which may have valuable applications in the chemical industry.

Interstellar molecules in a bottle at UCR

The finding of their paper, titled Cyclopropenylidenes: From Interstellar Space to an Isolated Derivative in the Laboratory are being released today in Science Express a precursor to its publication in the journal Science. The co-authors are Vincent Lavallo, Yves Canac and Bruno Donnadieu who work in the laboratory of Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Guy Bertrand at UCR; and Chemistry Professor Wolfgang W. Schoeller of Germany’s Universität Bielefeld.

“This is about a compound that is very abundant in deep space, which was supposed to not be able to exist in the laboratory, and we found a way to slightly modify it and make it stable,” said Bertrand.

The new molecule belongs to a family of compounds known as carbenes, very few of which are stable. However, carbenes are now widely used to prepare catalysts that have many applications in industries such as pharmaceuticals, plastics and other petrochemicals. The cyclopropenylidene that exists naturally in space is made of three carbon atoms arranged in a triangle with two hydrogen atoms attached. The UCR researchers synthesized a more stable version by replacing the hydrogen with two nitrogen atoms. Because of its unique shape and size, the new carbene prepared at UCR might lead to even more powerful catalysts.

“We purposely targeted this molecule,” said Lavallo, a first-year graduate student in Chemistry and the paper’s lead author. “I was intrigued by some of the older literature regarding this class of molecules, which indicated that they were too reactive to be isolated, and decided to see if it was true.”

“Everyday, scientists realize the usefulness of natural products, which exist on planet Earth, for pharmaceuticals, materials... Why not believe that molecules, which exist in space possess interesting and of course yet unknown properties?” Bertrand said.

The University of California, Riverside is a major research institution. Key areas of research include nanotechnology, genomics, environmental studies, digital arts and sustainable growth and development. With a current undergraduate and graduate enrollment of more than 16,600, the campus is projected to grow to 21,000 students by 2010. Located in the heart of Inland Southern California, the nearly 1,200-acre, park-like campus is at the center of the region’s economic development. Visit or call 951-UCR-NEWS for more information.

Ricardo Duran | EurekAlert!
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