Challenges and Opportunities for the Future of Organometallic Chemistry

By Song Xu

Organometallic Chemistry has made tremendous achievements for the last several decades, which mainly through the noble catalytic activities of transition-metal complexes. The achievements such as catalysis for olefin metathesis reactions, polymerization reaction have further impact other fields such as organic synthesis and petroleum industry as well.

However, from my point of view, although significant progresses of organometallic chemistry have been continuously made and the industrial areas such as pharmaceutical and petroleum are continuously benefiting from these scientific advancements, it is difficult for conventional organometallic chemistry research to be as prolific as it was several decades ago. Comparing to these popular topics discussed in the public media, such as artificial intelligence, 5G communication and genetic engineering, chemical research and industry including organometallic chemistry seems to be falling behind.

Problems usually comes together with opportunities. Although it is difficult for conventional organometallic research to be as exciting as it used to be, there are still lots of crucial problems that organometallic chemistry could address, at least could be involved. Some of them could be more exciting than the ones have been addressed decades ago. Importantly, these current problems require multidisciplinary research while it is difficult for organometallic chemistry to tackle these difficult problems alone. Partners from theoretical chemistry, material science etc. are required to engage with the difficulties together with inorganic/organometallic chemistry. To my point of view, the following areas that are some examples that organometallic chemistry could contribute to:

(I) Combining molecular catalysis with solid-state material: catalytic activity of molecular organometallic complexes has been intensively investigated in the solution phase. The understanding at molecular level of these complexes has been established for many of them, which allows further structural and activity optimization through synthetic approaches. However, most of molecular catalysts are not suitable for industrial application mainly due to their nature of solution-phase catalysis. Depositing well-defined molecular catalysts on material surface and construct material based on well- defined molecules provided a promising approach to combine the advantages of both homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis. Ideally these catalysts deposited on solid-state surface would be as easy to operate as heterogeneous catalysts. Additionally, mechanistic investigation and structural tuning through synthetic approach could be accessible based on the molecular nature of these catalysts. In addition to the intensive collaboration between organometallic chemistry and solid-state chemistry, theoretical chemistry and data science could provide insightful guidance on catalysts design at the early stage and mechanistic understanding for further activity optimization.

Additionally, catalysis based on metal-organic framework (MOF) is another similar approach and the ideas behind this direction is similar to that of depositing molecular catalysts on material surface.

(II) Quantum materials: Recently our group and our collaborators reported an Yttrium based organometallic complex with the properties of a room temperature qubit, which has potential application to quantum computation. To my point of view, quantum communication and computation is the real field that is revolutionary comparing to other hot topics. The development of quantum computation towards commercialization requires unique materials as new “semiconductor” that is cheap and durable, where inorganic/organometallic chemistry could involve. By tuning the electronic structure of metal through coordination environment manipulations, it is possible for inorganic/organometallic chemistry to contribute to this field. To accomplish material for quantum computation, the collaboration between inorganic/organometallic chemistry, physics and material science is required.

Although conventional organometallic chemistry is facing some difficulties currently, there is still bright, or even brighter future and plenty of opportunities if it could adjust itself properly and blend with other research fields deeply.

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