With the power to burn steel or melt bones, fluorine can be one of the most dangerous of all elements, depending on the form it takes.So, it often comes as a surprise to people that it is found in a third of all medicines. From asthma inhalers to tablets used to treat high cholesterol, fluorine plays a key role, whether that’s helping with absorption or preventing ingredients breaking down into toxic by-products in the body.
Traditionally, the manufacturing methods needed to create these drugs have been extremely complex. The reactivity of the substances involved means production needs to take place under extreme conditions – for example at very high temperatures or high pressure, using very specialist equipment.
It also takes many steps to reach the current sustainable fluorination chemical, which means the processes can be extremely wasteful. If it takes 40-plus steps to create your fluorination chemical, you might need to create over 100 tonnes of waste to produce one tonne of usable product, before you even try to introduce the fluorine atom into the medicine. I am looking at an alternative process, which could reduce that production method down to two steps, saving pharmaceutical companies vast amounts of time and money, but also reducing the environmental impact.
By cutting the steps in the process you’re reducing the material and energy needed as well as the amount of waste created.
My thesis centres on the use of fluoride salts, a less reactive form of the element. Unlike the form that can dissolve bones, fluoride salts are everywhere around us, from the calcium fluoride in our toothpaste to the sodium fluoride in our drinking water and in many of the foods that we eat.
"A catalyst can act like a bridge across a river. If you came to a river and wanted to get across it, without a catalyst, you’d have to swim. It might take you a long time, be very difficult and you may not even reach the other side. "
These salts can be drawn from the earth, where they have existed for millions of years without reacting. I’m investigating the way these can be used in the pharmaceutical production process, by reacting them with a catalyst.
A catalyst can act like a bridge across a river. If you came to a river and wanted to get across it, without a catalyst, you’d have to swim. It might take you a long time, be very difficult and you may not even reach the other side. A catalyst makes the process quicker and simpler. Both routes get you to your eventual destination but use different pathways. My route is an alternative method that introduces a different reaction pathway that requires less energy.
In the past, chemists have often been very focused on the outcome of their discoveries, not what happened before or after that. Take the use of lead in petrol, for example. It worked well, but there was no thought for its impact on the environment. Now, with everything we do we are focused on the environmental impact and what happens both upstream and downstream of the chemical process.
"Now, with everything we do we are focused on the environmental impact and what happens both upstream and downstream of the chemical process. "
I’ve wanted to be a scientist ever since I was at school and my fascination for sustainable chemistry grew throughout my undergraduate course, so Nottingham was the natural next step for my PhD. I’m based at the GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory on the Jubilee Campus and it’s amazing to be at the heart of such an innovative centre with its strong links to industry. Schoolboy me would be so impressed that I am now here working as a scientist, getting to come in put a lab coat on and play with atoms every day.
I work in a lab with around 20 other researchers and the equipment available to us is state of the art. We all come from really different backgrounds so it’s great to share our experiences. If I don’t know something there’s always someone else that will.
I have two more years of my PhD and I’m not sure what I will do next, but I do know that I always want to be involved in research. Being in the lab, at the forefront of innovation, is what excites me. The end goal? If medicines get made in the future using methods I have contributed to that would be unbelievable. That’s definitely the dream.
Patrick Morgan is a PhD student at the University’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Chemistry.