COLLEGE STATION --
Bonds between the chemical elements carbon and fluorine produce the wonder-substance Scotchgard™ and many other products that make human existence more convenient, but they also form the framework for potent greenhouse gases that harm the ozone layer. Texas A&M University chemist Oleg V. Ozerov
and his research team have found a way to break that bond at room temperature, a breakthrough with potential significance for a greener environment.
"If our research is successful and it's economically viable, we could ultimately design processes that are practical for minimizing our global warming footprint in the world," said Ozerov, a professor in the Department of Chemistry
Scotchgard, a stain and water repellant that can be applied to furniture and other items, is one of many items made possible because of the carbon-fluorine bond. Others include Teflon™, a non-stick coating that enables food to cleanly slide off the skillet onto the plate, and Gore-Tex™, another popular water-proofing compound. The bond's convenience makes it helpful in many areas, from clothing and refrigerants to semiconductors and even anesthetics. But the tradeoff is that volatile compounds with the carbon-fluorine bond also are potent greenhouse gases.
Breaking the carbon-fluorine bond -- the strongest in organic chemistry -- could preserve the conveniences of such substances while mitigating or eliminating the negative environmental consequences. Many of the super greenhouse gases believed to be involved in global warming have these types of bonds, which typically exist almost indefinitely. Ozerov has demonstrated a technique to convert these compounds into something more benign -- work that may lead to the ability to destroy atmospheric pollutants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and possibly perfluorocarbons (PFCs).
Ozerov's technique uses a bond between silicon and hydrogen to convert the carbon-fluorine bond into a carbon-hydrogen bond. Specifically, his research group has developed a catalyst that allows this reaction under mild circumstances -- most notably, at room temperature -- without using large amounts of exotic or hazardous reagents.
"We still have fluorines, but they're now attached to silicons, not carbons," Ozerov said. "And you can convert that to sodium fluoride, which is completely non-volatile. So we make new compounds, but none of them are super greenhouse gases anymore."
Although researchers have previously broken this bond, Ozerov's discovery is significant because unlinking the elements during mild conditions -- as opposed to, say, at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- is key to developing a process for destroying the bond that would be economically feasible on a large scale.
Ozerov's work has implications for the national challenge of environmental preservation, and he's proud of that. But the force that drives him is the same one that sparked his love of chemistry: a basic curiosity about the world. In the year before high school, Ozerov and a friend whose parents were chemists "were concocting mixtures that would blow things up, on a small, non-dangerous scale." It fascinated Ozerov, who immediately read a chemistry textbook.
"I completely got it and felt a connection," Ozerov said. "Since then, I've wanted to be a chemist. As a chemist, you can make something that you can hold in your hand that has never existed in the world before. I think it's a very powerful feeling, because you create your own subject of study."
The son of two Russian economists, Ozerov eventually followed his curiosity to the United States in 1995 as part of a summer research exchange program with the University of Kentucky. He later returned to Kentucky for his doctorate (2000) after completing his undergraduate and master's studies at the Higher Chemical College of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1998). Prior to joining the Texas A&M faculty in 2009, Ozerov spent seven years as a chemistry professor at Brandeis University, where he had earned tenure in 2006 as a 30-year-old.
In 2012 Ozerov was recognized with the Pure Chemistry Award
from the American Chemical Society, as well as the $100,000 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research
from the Houston-based Welch Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry.
Ozerov also is a member of "Powering the Planet
," a National Science Foundation
-sponsored Center for Chemical Innovation targeting conversion of solar energy into chemical fuels. His research group is studying molecular approaches to developing more efficient electrocatalysts for production of hydrogen and oxygen from water. In addition, he is one of a handful of Texas A&M scientists involved in a recent collaboration between Texas A&M and Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, considered one of the foremost centers of multidisciplinary research and graduate study worldwide. Ozerov is partnering on a renewable fuel project with the Weizmann Institute's David Milstein
, an international expert in selectively activated chemical bonds and environmentally friendly catalysts.
To learn more about Ozerov's research, go to http://www.chem.tamu.edu/faculty/ozerov
or watch this tribute video
, produced last year by the Welch Foundation
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