PHOENIX — The phosphorus atom is a key ingredient in many compounds, including some used in cosmetics, but it can also be the catalyst in some chemical reactions that are critical to chemical reactions, such as catalytic ones.
Now, scientists have identified a phosphorus atom that catalyzes chemical reactions in a biological system.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University at Buffalo and the University Center for Materials at the University College London have identified an atom with a unique property that enables these reactions.
This unique phosphorus atom catalyzes reactions in many chemical systems.
The study is published online in the journal Nature Communications.
“This unique atom allows for catalytic reactions to occur in biological systems, which can be key to catalytic applications,” said the study’s first author, Mark S. Rolfe, a materials scientist with the UH Manoa Center for Molecular and Nanomaterials and the UB Laboratory for Materials Science and Engineering.
“The chemistry of this system is quite complicated, but the basic idea is to see if we can figure out how to make it work with other molecules in order to produce useful chemicals,” he said.
The researchers used a process called photo-directed synthesis to synthesize phosphorus-based compounds.
They discovered the phosphorus-binding carbon, a molecule of phosphorus, that binds with the phosphorus in the molecule of a catalyst.
The phosphorus-containing molecule then combines with the catalyst to form a new molecule of the same name.
This reaction allows the formation of compounds of the phosphorus atomic structure that can be used in catalytic processes.
In addition to its catalytic properties, the new phosphorus atom has another role in the catalytic process.
The molecule catalyzes the formation and/or reduction of nitrogen ions.
Nitrogen ions are a common constituent of water molecules, and the researchers were able to detect the presence of a phosphorus-bonding carbon and the presence or absence of a sulfur atom, which are catalysts for the reduction of the nitrogen ions.
The presence of the nitrogen-bonding carbon and sulfur atom in the phosphorus atoms was also seen in the presence and absence of oxygen, which the researchers say could help predict how a catalyst might react with a chemical.
The phosphorus-bending carbon was found to bind with the carbon of the catalysts of the photo-induced reaction, but not in the reduction reaction.
The researchers speculate that the presence (or absence) of the oxygen atom could help determine how the catalyst reacts with a particular catalyst.
“Our work shows that the phosphorus binding carbon, in this case the photoinduced catalyst, is able to bind a specific carbon,” Rolfei said.
“We think this gives us a mechanism that is more useful than the more conventional reaction of reducing nitrogen ions, where you have to do it in a reactive form that would otherwise not be reversible.”
The study also found that the binding of the phosphate atom is controlled by the oxygen molecule and not the other nitrogen-containing carbon in the catalyst.
This process of reducing the nitrogen ions in the reaction was also observed when the phosphorus molecule was mixed with a nitrogen-bearing material, such a water molecule.
The team believes this indicates that the oxygen in the water molecule is a critical part of the reaction, which would be beneficial in catalytically-active chemical reactions.
The research team is now investigating how this process can be controlled for other materials.
Rolfe and his colleagues are currently working on another method of creating phosphorus-bound catalyst compounds.