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Name: Elliot R.
Status: Student
Grade: 6-8
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: June 2005


Question:
I would like to know, how chemicals are engineered. What I mean is how do scientists get different atoms to combine. For instance, if I wanted to get a Oxygen atom to bind with a carbon or any other, how to scientists get them to do so, especially if they are different types of things, like a solid and a liquid or gas. There must be some way they do it other than just mixing them. I find this extremely interesting.



Replies:
Here are my observations, as an engineer, as opposed to a scientist.

First, addressing states. A pencil lead is basically carbon. Air, has oxygen. With the pencil exposed to air, Is there any combining? No. So there given states define a stability. But, their properties are affected by their environment. Raise the temperate and the pencil lead would melt. The atoms within the carbon get excited, increasing the potential for combining with other atoms. If oxygen is introduced at its excited state it will combine with the carbon. Quantities are critical. Temperature is but one of the properties that have impact. Pressure is another. One reason for the President's plan to go to the moon, is for industry. The lack of gravity permits chemicals to be combined, at far less expense than on earth. This would be advantageous to drug companies and other industries.

James Przewoznik


Elliot,

The whole of Chemistry is a science that tries to understand and organize the experiences we have with chemicals. Thus, controlling reactions so that they go the way we want them to is a result of this understanding. Here is a short summary: Chemists view matter (nature) as being made up of atoms. All atoms have structure. Part of the structure of atoms are its electrons. It turns out that most of the chemical and physical properties of atoms can be attributed to the outermost layer of electrons that an atom has (think of the way all our physical interaction is through our skin). Knowing the structure of this outermost layer of electrons - which differs from atom type to atom type - gives us an idea of how the atom will respond or interact in various situations. Thus, controlling a reaction really comes from our understanding of atoms.

Greg (Roberto Gregorius)


The answer to your question is far beyond the scope of a medium like NEWTON BBS, because you are asking in effect, "What is organic synthesis?" and the answer to that question fills library shelves -- hundreds, maybe thousands of them. In general, a chemist has a "reason" for wanting to synthesize a particular compound. This motive could range from "because it looks interesting" to "similar molecules have interesting, possibly commercial value". S/he then researches what starting compounds are available, or can be synthesized. Then comes the creative part, "How can I get from the starting material to the desired end product most efficiently and/or most cost effective?" The answer to that question is tied up with the first. The more the motivation is commercial, the more important cost effectiveness becomes. Over time, particularly the last century, a vast literature on how to get from compound A to compound B has evolved. The chemist researches the literature for possible routes, or in the absence of any known route, s/he may have to invent one. It is here where the creativity of the chemist comes into play. Conditions of synthesis -- temperature, pressure, catalyst, solvent(s), etc. are arrived at experimentally, and/or experience about what does/does not work. You are correct, just dumping "stuff" into a flask, stirring and heating, is not a very efficient, or safe way to arrive at conditions.

Most synthetic organic chemists specialize in the synthesis of certain sub-categories of compounds. If a chemist needs a method, or believe s/he needs a reaction, s/he may likely communicate with a specialist in that type of reaction. Most chemists willingly trade their knowledge unless there are patent or trade secrets involved. Then starts the hard, labor intensive, work. Making "educated guesses" and trying them out. Usually, this may involve developing a new body of synthetic knowledge, which the chemist will share through publication in the open literature. Sometimes this process leads the chemist to a "fork in the road" and s/he will change the original objective because a new topic/method is uncovered during the discovery process.

All of this is quite challenging and is how new syntheses are discovered.

Vince Calder



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