Tiny molecules, big gains  

By Dawn Wiseman

Imagine producing research results and then having to wait for someone to tell you what they are. It’s not just time consuming, it’s frustrating. Now consider that each analysis costs at least $300.

Funded by CFI, Xavier Ottenwaelder will push his research forward with a single-crystal x-ray diffractometer. Magnifying glass

Funded by CFI, Xavier Ottenwaelder will push his research forward with a single-crystal x-ray diffractometer.

“It becomes a major budget concern pretty quickly,” says Xavier Ottenwaelder (Chemistry and Biochemistry).

Ottenwaelder is an inorganic chemist whose research focuses on mimicking how nature oxidizes molecules. Oxidation is the process of adding oxygen to a molecule. Industrially important oxidation processes include the conversion of methane (natural gas) to methanol (a fuel combustible by vehicles) and propylene to propylene glycol (which is found in items as varied as antifreeze and deodorant).

“Nature is extremely efficient at oxidation,” explains Ottenwaelder. “In a single step nature uses atmospheric oxygen, emits only water as a by-product of the reaction and does all this at room temperature.”

Industrial oxidation is significantly less green in terms of source of oxidant, energy requirements and by-products. It also involves catalysts; substances which facilitate the required oxygen insertion reaction.

One of the primary activities of Ottenwaelder’s lab is the development of new oxidation catalysts that will render the process of converting fossil fuels to other useful products with the use of less energy and the production of less wasteful and often polluting by-products.

He and his students work extensively with metal complexes.

“As the name indicates, these are complex molecules,” says Ottenwaelder. “One of my students recently produced purple crystals as a result of his experiments. It was totally unexpected, we had no idea what it was.”

Given the nature of Ottenwaelder’s work – and that of many other chemists and biochemists – this type of mystery molecule is a frequent occurrence. The best way to determine what has been produced is to get a good look at its structure. And that’s where the costs come in; samples have to be sent to an external facility for analysis with a single-crystal x-ray diffractometer, but not for much longer.

Ottenwaelder has secured a $400 000 Leaders Opportunity Fund (LOF) grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to purchase one such machine for Concordia.

The LOF is designed to help universities attract and retain the very best researchers at a time of intense international competition. To this end, it offers the opportunity to acquire infrastructure for leading research faculty so they may undertake cutting-edge research.

While the diffractometer will directly support Ottenwaelder’s work, it will also be accessible to other members of his department. In fact, an upgrade for making it functional for biochemists, which he initially thought would take up to three years to afford, is now standard on the machine; making it useful to them right away.
“We’re all very excited. So are a number of people in the Departments of Physics and Biology,” he says. "With this new technology, we will be able to look at small molecules such as drug candidates or catalysts and at biomolecules such as DNA, proteins and enzymes."

Using very small wavelength x-rays, the single-crystal diffractometer produces an extremely accurate picture of the molecule under study. Its resolution is good enough to illuminate the spaces between individual atoms.

As Ottenwaelder points out, “A picture is worth a thousand words, and images produced using the machine will provide a much better exposure for the science being done at Concordia. This in turn will facilitate publication of our work and access to research grants."

“The Université de Paris-XI, where I did my PhD research, obtained a single-crystal diffractometer five years ago, and their research output has considerably increased,” he said.

“Right now, because of the cost of analysis and the fragility of some crystals, only the best samples produced in our labs can be analysed. With a machine at Concordia, all molecules can be analysed and, given the serendipitous nature of research, the chance of novel discovery increases exponentially."

Ottenwaelder expects the single-crystal x-ray diffractometer to be up and running in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry before the end of 2009.


Concordia University