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posted on 04.08.2021, 15:57 by Yangjie LiYangjie Li

Various organic reactions, including important synthetic reactions involving C–C, C–N, and C–O bond formation as well as reactions of biomolecules, are known to be accelerated when the reagents are present in confined volumes such as sprayed or levitated microdroplets or thin films. This phenomenon of reaction acceleration and the key role of interfaces played in it are of intrinsic interest and potentially of practical value as a simple, rapid method of performing small-scale synthesis. This dissertation has three focusing subtopics in the field of reaction acceleration: (1) application of reaction acceleration in levitated droplets and mass spectrometry to accelerate the reaction-analysis workflow of forced degradation of pharmaceuticals at small scale; (2) fundamental understanding of mechanisms of accelerated reactions at air/solution interfaces; (3) discovery the use of glass particles as a `green' heterogeneous catalysts in solutions and systematical study of solid(glass)/solution interfacial reaction acceleration as a superbase for synthesis and degradation using high-throughput screening.

Reaction acceleration in confined volumes could enhance analytical methods in industrial chemistry. Forced degradation is critical to probe the stabilities and chemical reactivities of therapeutics. Typically performed in bulk followed by LC-MS analysis, this traditional workflow of reaction/analysis sequence usually requires several days to form and measure desirable amount of degradants. I developed a new method to study chemical degradation in a shorter time frame in order to speed up both drug discovery and the drug development process. Using the Leidenfrost effect, I was able to study, over the course of seconds, degradation in levitated microdroplets over a metal dice. This two-minute reaction/analysis workflow allows major degradation pathways of both small molecules and therapeutic peptides to be studied. The reactions studied include deamidation, disulfide bond cleavage, ether cleavage, dehydration, hydrolysis, and oxidation. The method uses microdroplets as nano-reactors and only require a minimal amount of therapeutics per stress condition and the desirable amount of degradant can be readily generated in seconds by adjusting the droplet levitation time, which is highly advantageous both in the discovery and development phase. Built on my research, microdroplets can potentially be applied in therapeutics discovery and development to rapidly screen stability of therapeutics and to screen the effects of excipients in enhancing formulation stabilities.

My research also advanced the fundamental understanding of reaction acceleration by disentangles the factors controlling reaction rates in microdroplet reactions using constant-volume levitated droplets and Katritzky transamination as a model. The large surface-to-volume ratios of these systems results in a major contribution from reactions at the air/solution interface where reaction rates are increased. Systems with higher surface-active reactants are subject to greater acceleration, particularly at lower concentrations and higher surface-to-volume ratios. These results highlight the key role that air/solution air/solution interfaces play in Katritzky reaction acceleration. They are also consistent with the view that reaction increased rate constant is at least in part due to limited solvation of reagents at the interface.

While reaction acceleration at air/solution interfaces has been well known in microdroplets, reaction acceleration at solid/solution interfaces appears to be a new phenomenon. The Katritzky reaction in bulk solution at room temperature is accelerated significantly by the surface of a glass container compared to a plastic container. Remarkably, the reaction rate is increased by more than two orders of magnitude upon the addition of glass particles with the rate increasing linearly with increasing amounts of glass. A similar phenomenon is observed when glass particles are added to levitated droplets, where large acceleration factors are seen. Evidence shows that glass acts as a ‘green’ heterogeneous catalyst: it participates as a base in the deprotonation step and is recovered unchanged from the reaction mixture.

Subsequent to this study, we have systematically explored the solid/solution interfacial acceleration phenomena using our latest generation of a high-throughput screening system which is capable of screening thousands of organic reactions in a single day. Using desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (DESI-MS) for automated analysis, we have found that glass promotes not only organic reactions without organic catalysts but also reactions of biomolecules without enzymes. Such reactions include Knoevenagel condensation, imine formation, elimination of hydrogen halide, ester hydrolysis and/or transesterification of acetylcholine and phospholipids, as well as oxidation of glutathione. Glass has been used as a general `green' and powerful heterogeneous catalyst.


Merck LKR161299

Merck LKR174368

National Science Foundation CHE-1905087

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency W911NF-16-2-0020


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

R. Graham Cooks

Additional Committee Member 2

Peter T. Kissinger

Additional Committee Member 3

Gaurav Chopra

Additional Committee Member 4

Mary J. Wirth