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Geomimicry

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Geomimicry provides answers to the following questions:

How does the Earth do chemistry?

What can we learn from how the Earth does chemistry to revolutionize how humans should really be doing chemistry?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Commercial and laboratory organic chemistry has both blessed and cursed the world with products that have outcomes from saving lives to causing pollution and disease. Chemists have developed solvents, reagents, and catalysts to make reactions faster and more specific. Commercial chemical supply catalogues are hundreds of pages long. However, nearly every known organic reaction also occurs within the Earth, under geochemical conditions, without access to chemical supply catalogues.

More than 15,000,000 gigatonnes of organic matter, or over 99.99% of the Earth’s organic carbon even when the biosphere is considered, is located below the Earth's surface (Falkowski, 2000). Earth is a consummate organic chemist, conducting an enormous range of reactions using mainly abundant and benign reagents and catalysts rather than rare metals, extreme oxidants, reductants, or concentrated acids. Importantly, these reactions take place at elevated temperatures with water as the only solvent, i.e., hydrothermal conditions. The temperatures are not extreme; much of the Earth’s organic chemistry occurs at moderate temperatures and pressures (150-250°C and ≤1000 bar). Such conditions can be attained in a simple sealed glass tube.

The properties of hydrothermal water facilitate organic chemistry. Water’s dielectric constant decreases substantially at higher temperatures, mimicking organic solvents, and its dissociation into hydronium and hydroxide is greater, promoting acid- and base-catalyzed reactions. Hydrothermal chemistry often takes place in the presence of minerals, whose surfaces can act as reagents or heterogeneous catalysts (Shipp et al., 2014).

By mimicking hydrothermal geologic conditions, reactions can be performed with benign materials. For example, organic oxidations are often performed using the toxic and carcinogenic chromium(VI), however, there is virtually no chromium(VI) in the Earth. Under hydrothermal conditions, oxidations can be performed using the much milder copper (II), which in traditional organic chemistry is not even considered an oxidizing agent (Yang et al., 2015).

Hydrothermal/geologic organic chemistry is literally the universal chemistry, and it is almost certainly the way organic chemistry occurs in the rest of the universe. Virtually all useful organic chemistry takes place in water, either hydrothermally or biochemically, and uses non-toxic catalysts and reagents. Nonetheless, industrial and laboratory organic chemistry is often performed in toxic solvents and with reagents and catalysts that are expensive, toxic, or rare.

Geomimicry is the geologic analog of biomimicry. Geomimicry offers a paradigm shift for green chemistry toward altogether new processes that do not pollute because they are the Earth’s ways of doing chemistry. Biomimicry offers routes to organic chemicals with high specificity and precision. Geomimicry offers new routes to organic chemicals that are robust, cost efficient, and can be performed at a huge scale.

Geomimicry is in its infancy. Although some basic principles are understood and a range of different hydrothermal reactions have been observed, an understanding of which Earth-abundant reagents are selective toward which reactions, and which minerals selectively catalyze which reactions is only just emerging.

Examples of key research questions are:

  • What is the scope of hydrothermal oxidation reactions, and how can we use the ubiquitous iron (III) as an oxidizing agent?
  • Reduction via hydrogenation (cracking) almost always uses heterogenous catalysis. Which minerals can efficiently catalyze hydrogenation, and how do they work?
  • • Polymerization represents a major activity of chemical industry. How can we use the inherent catalytic properties of hydrothermal water to promote and control polymerization?

    • What are immediately important transformative commercial applications of geomimicry?

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