Mining for Greener Solutions

It takes a Caltech mind to look at a commonplace element like potassium and find properties others see only in gold and platinum. These precious metals are catalysts, and until recently they were the only elements known to be suitable for use in certain essential processes.
There is ~25 million times more potassium than gold and platinum in the Earth’s crust.

At Caltech, a keen eye and the freedom to investigate a curious result enable breakthrough discoveries. Because of the people who choose Caltech and the support the Institute provides, insights revealed here year after year empower the rest of the world to retool factories, reorganize industries, and rewrite textbooks—and history books.

“We thought that only precious metals are able to do these very challenging chemical reactions. Turns out, that’s not true.”
- Resnick-Dow Fellow Anton Toutov

Working in the lab of Nobel laureate Robert H. Grubbs, Caltech’s Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, Anton Toutov—who is now a Resnick-Dow Fellow—was intrigued by an unexpected result in an experiment. His lab-mate Alexey Fedorov, then a Caltech postdoc, ran a control experiment without a metal catalyst—and the reaction still worked. Toutov followed his curiosity. He checked the results over and over. He designed and performed experiments with a new hypothesis in mind—one that had potential to revolutionize whole fields. Caltech encouraged him, keeping pathways open for colleagues from across the Institute to work with him. And for one of the first times ever, Toutov showed that catalysis could be achieved sustainably—using an abundant element in place of precious metals.

“We thought that only precious metals are able to do these very challenging chemical reactions,” Toutov said. “Turns out that’s not true.… Nature figured this out millions of years ago, and we’re only now starting to catch up.”

Researchers in Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute are now doing work that could lead to creating low-cost, greener methods of manufacturing medicine, food, and other resources essential to human life.

“The first time I spoke about this at a conference, people were stunned,” Grubbs said.

Watch the story of Element 19 yourself:

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