The University of Lethbridge’s strength in fluorine chemistry was boosted this week with the launch of the Canadian Centre for Research in Advanced Fluorine Technologies (C-CRAFT).
Michael Gerken, a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department and a renowned fluorine chemist, has been named as the centre’s first director.
“C-CRAFT is a centre that focuses around the chemistry of the element fluorine. We established that here at the University of Lethbridge because we have a high concentration of people with expertise in fluorine chemistry, I would say even the highest number in Canada,” Gerken said. “We’ll bring together the expertise and facilitate collaboration between the members. We want to have a highly collaborative centre.”
With nine founding members, the centre has a broad base of expertise to draw from. The creation of the centre will allow the U of L to recruit top students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty, secure government funding and attract industry partners.
Interest in fluorine chemistry has increased over the past decade as scientists have found new ways of introducing the element into organic systems.
Fluorine is the most reactive element in the periodic table and the 13th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Its source is fluorite, or fluorspar as it is known in the mining industry, which is composed of calcium and fluoride. Fluorite, which is very stable, is used in many industrial applications, including pharmaceuticals, agriculture, ceramics, refrigerants and in the production of iron and steel.
Gerken works with the highly reactive fluorine. His lab has a special air handling system and anyone working in the lab goes through rigorous safety training before they work with fluorine.
“We’re looking at fluorinating reagents here and looking at mechanisms – how they work to make, for example, those pharmaceuticals and to introduce fluorine into organic systems,” he said.
About 20 per cent of pharmaceuticals contain fluorine atoms, including Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering medication, and Prozac, an antidepressant.
Many people are familiar with fluoride, which is added to some municipal water supplies to reduce tooth decay. The relationship of fluorine to fluoride is similar to that between chlorine and chloride. Chlorine gas is very reactive and is used to disinfect water in water treatment plants. In high concentrations it is a chemical warfare agent. Chloride is far more stable and when combined with sodium, creates ordinary table salt.
“We’re interested in the chemistry of fluorine but also in the characterization of fluorine compounds. We have an outstanding nuclear magnetic resonance facility specialized in fluorine work, unique in Canada I would say and one of the few of that specialization in the world,” Gerken said.