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Discovery could lead to safer, cheaper production of amine-boranes

WEST LAFAYETTE, US: Purdue University researchers have developed a way to produce amine-boranes that promises to be safer and cheaper, and could lead to new uses in medicine, energy storage, rocket propulsion and other technologies.

P V Ramachandran, professor of organic chemistry in the department of chemistry, and graduate assistant Ameya S Kulkarni have discovered a way to produce amine-boranes in an open-air environment using cheaper and more plentiful chemicals that have not been used before. The result could provide a safer, cheaper and more plentiful compound, including those not made before, that has a multitude of uses.

The process and one of their applications in organic chemistry is detailed in the journal Chemical Communications.

Diborane is a pyrophoric gas seldom used as is due to its toxicity and safety issues. Amines, on the other hand, are compounds consisting of a nitrogen atom, Ramachandran said. When amines are combined with borane, the result is non-toxic, air- and moisture-stable amine-boranes.

“Amine-boranes have long been prized for their potential for hydrogen storage,” he said.

According to a 2006 report from the US Department of Energy, amine-borane complexes have great potential as a component in fuel sources due to their high hydrogen content. Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to power electric vehicles and other electronic devices and can be used to propel spacecraft.

Producing amine-boranes by conventional methods has several safety concerns.

“Borane dimethyl sulphide, one of the reagents used in the process up to now, if opened to air, reacts with the moisture in the air, releasing hydrogen, a highly flammable gas, which could catch fire; so extreme caution needs to be used. Due to the chemicals and process involved in the reaction, only highly trained people could do the reaction. What we’ve done is to make that reaction more accessible.”

The new method of producing the compound removes many of the dangerous forms of borane and substitutes them with sodium borohydride and sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda), which are less dangerous. That allows water to be used as a reagent, meaning the process can be done in an open-air environment, Ramachandran said.

“This process also leads to higher amounts of amine-boranes being produced,” he said.

Since the product is more readily available, it should bring the cost down significantly.

“The new process can also lead to the production of other types of amine-boranes, some of which have not been researched at all since these materials have not been available in the past,” he said. “So it’s really up to a chemist’s imagination.”

Medicines, batteries and rocket propellants are only some of the uses that are possible.

In the companion manuscript published by Ramachandran’s group, the application of the simplest of the amine-boranes, ammonia borane, for hydroboration has been described. Hydroboration refers to the addition of a hydrogen-boron bond to carbon-based bonds.

“Hydroboration gave organic chemists a procedure to make millions of compounds that were more difficult to make otherwise,” Ramachandran said. Despite its widespread use, hydroboration utilises pyrophoric, moisture-sensitive reagents posing a safety risk.

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