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Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater, University of Connecticut – The Usefulness of Fluorine

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In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut explains how fluorine can be used to create useful new pharmaceuticals.

Nicholas Leadbeater is an associate professor of organic and inorganic chemistry at the University of Connecticut, where he heads the New Synthetic Methods Group. Leadbeater and the NSMG research cleaner and more efficient methods for creating synthetic materials. Dr. Leadbeater holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where he was a research fellow until 1999.

About Dr. Leadbeater

Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater – The Usefulness of Fluorine

Fluorine is arguably the most reactive chemical element known. In fact elemental fluorine, which is a gas at room temperature, will react with every other element in the periodic table with the exception of helium and neon. This is because fluorine is very electronegative. That means that it attracts electrons to itself from other elements. However, when fluorine reacts, it forms stable compounds called fluorides. Because of its reactivity, when chemists want to make molecules containing a fluorine atom, they rarely use elemental fluorine but instead use the more stable fluorides.

One of the biggest areas of interest to chemists recently is the incorporation of fluorine atoms into pharmaceuticals. This can make them more readily taken up by the body as well as prolonging their activity. But the selective incorporation of fluorine atoms into molecules is really challenging. Even nature has not been able to develop a diverse set of fluorination reactions. Only 21 naturally occurring organic molecules containing fluorine are known, compared to thousands with the similar elements, chlorine and bromine. In a chemist’s lab, high temperatures or highly reactive intermediates or reagents have often been used to incorporate fluorine into compounds.

However, with the development of modern chemistry it is now beginning to be possible both to prepare fluorine-containing compounds more easily and also manipulate them once made. In my research laboratory and others around the world, chemists are using metal catalysts to help replace either hydrogen atoms or other similar atoms by fluorine. In addition, it is possible to introduce groups containing three fluorine atoms into molecules. These reactions can significantly alter the chemical properties of molecules and open up avenues for better medicines. 

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