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Chemical Catalysts: Magic Powder from Wroc³aw
November 3, 2015   
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A Polish company is set to revolutionize the market for the production of chemical catalysts, the substances that speed up chemical reactions.

A range of new chemical catalysts developed by Apeiron Synthesis, a company from the southwestern Polish city of Wroc³aw, makes it possible to more easily and economically produce a variety of new-generation drugs as well as fragrances, resin and rubber additives and polymers.

A catalyst is a substance that enables a chemical reaction or increases its rate without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change. Catalysts are indispensible in the production of most chemicals.

Apeiron Synthesis offers its catalysts in powder form. They must meet several conditions: above all, they cannot be too expensive. Apeiron Synthesis sells its catalysts to customers around the world.

The company started developing its products several years ago; now it is working to upgrade them. “We started out with homogeneous catalysts that dissolve in other substances in the same way sugar dissolves in water,” says company CEO Micha³ Bieniek, who has a Ph.D. degree in chemical sciences. “They are cheap, do their job fast and can be used in small amounts.” But some customers, especially those from the pharmaceutical industry, needed substances that would not dissolve but would instead form a suspension and could be easily drained off after the reaction. These are called heterogeneous catalysts.

While various companies offer such catalysts, the problem was that those substances were not acceptable for industrial production, Bieniek says. Large amounts of them were needed to trigger a reaction and they were expensive as well, making production uneconomical. The Polish researchers undertook to change that.

"We modified both the catalyst and the medium in which it is embedded,” says Bieniek. “As a result, catalyst efficiency improved dozens of times over.”

The new substances produced by Apeiron Synthesis met the expectations of most pharmaceutical companies.

“Our customers include companies with large research departments in the United States and Western Europe,” Bieniek says. “At the moment, we are carrying out a project together with a company that produces fragrances for perfumes and fragrance fixatives,” says Bieniek.

Production of drugs is subject to various restrictions. The final product may not contain too many heavy metals, yet catalysts are largely made of metals. In the case of Apeiron Synthesis, the metal is ruthenium, which must be removed after the reaction. If the catalysts are insoluble, it is easy to drain them off. With homogeneous catalysts, the metal is much more difficult to remove.

Insoluble catalysts are easier to remove from the post-reaction mixture. They can also be reused and are thus suitable for the production of pharmaceuticals.

“Production of a pharmaceutical consists of five to 40 synthesis stages. Many of these stages are catalytic reactions,” says Bieniek. “Production of the catalyst itself is also a multistep chemical synthesis process that consists of eight to 12 stages.”

Apeiron Synthesis’s catalysts have won over customers worldwide. The company offers both soluble and insoluble catalysts. The latter, which are especially useful for drug and perfume producers, have been developed thanks to financial support from Poland’s National Center for Research and Development (NCBR).

Apeiron Synthesis’s core technology is called catalytic olefin metathesis. The company developed it as part of the “Efficient Heterogeneous Catalysts for Olefin Metathesis” project in response to growing international demand for efficient heterogeneous catalysts. Metathesis is a reaction is used in the production of drugs, polymers, aromatic compounds, rubber and fuel additives and various other types of additives. Olefins are synthetic fibers used for the production of polymers such as polyethylene—the most common plastic in the world—and polypropylene.

The results of the heterogeneous catalyst project are encouraging and many companies that produce various compounds in industrial quantities have shown interest, says Bieniek. “For example, we have received an order from a major pharmaceutical company in the United States,” he adds.

The project started in January 2014 and is scheduled to run until the end of this year. Several types of catalysts have been developed as a result of the project. They differ slightly from one another because every customer has different requirements, Bieniek says.

The first catalysts are ready for use. Their development has resulted in a number of research publications and patents.

The project cost about zl.2.5 million, including zl.1.7 million from the National Center for Research and Development. Apeiron Synthesis contributed the rest from its own funds.

The company’s chemists have won a number of grants to finance research and development, implementation, and intellectual property protection in Europe, the United States and Japan.
Karolina Olszewska

Most of the researchers working at Apeiron Synthesis come from academia. CEO Micha³ Bieniek is a chemist who completed his doctoral studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he learned how to produce catalysts under Prof. Karol Grela. Before they founded Apeiron Synthesis, Bieniek and his colleagues worked for companies in the United States and Germany on an occasional basis and found that there was a lot of interest in catalyst production technology. Apeiron Synthesis was founded in 2009 as an academic startup. Today the company has 20 employees, most of whom are based in Wroc³aw, where the company’s research and production department is located. Two years ago, a branch opened in Boston, Massachusetts, staffed by two employees. The company also has a representative based in Britain.

Key advantages of Apeiron Synthesis’s catalysts:
- fit for use in a broad range of temperatures (from 0 to 140 degrees Celsius)
- compatible with various solvents, including water
- easy and irreversible deposition on various solid supports—catalyst heterogenization
- easy cleaning of reaction mixture from residual ruthenium

The Technology: Catalytic Olefin Metathesis
Olefin metathesis is a chemical reaction in which two carbon-carbon double bonds (olefins) join with one another, forming new olefinic products.

The story of olefin metathesis originates in the industrial laboratories of the mid-1950s when chemists at DuPont, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum reported some novel transformations—disproportionation—of olefins. A research group at Goodyear was the first to call this “transformation olefin metathesis” in 1967. The intriguing results obtained by these pioneers drew the attention of other researchers to the potential of this new class of reactions.

The transformation remained a laboratory curiosity without significance for advanced organic chemistry until well-defined homogeneous catalyst systems developed in the early 1990s, accompanied by corresponding research in academic laboratories. Today metathesis reactions are widely used for synthesis in pharmaceuticals, fragrance chemicals, pheromones, modified rubbers, lubricants, specialty surfactants and polymers. New olefinic products present unique opportunities; Apeiron Synthesis aims to seize these opportunities and bring innovations to its customers.

Apeiron Synthesis uses both proprietary technology, which is the result of an in-house research program, and external intellectual property licensed from leading European industrial and academic partners.

Source: company website (apeiron-synthesis.com)
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