research news

Chemists stabilize hard-to-tame chloride compound


Published November 4, 2022

“This discovery opens the floodgates to a whole new area of research. ”
David Lacy, associate professor
Department of Chemistry

Molecular compounds containing chlorine atoms alongside another element are vital materials in chemical synthesis.

Called “binary chlorides,” they can be used to help make other compounds with applications in fields including medicine, agriculture and materials research. But as UB chemist David Lacy explains: “Some useful binary chlorides are unstable and essentially impossible to work with.”

A new study by Lacy’s team addresses this problem.

On Sept. 6 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the scientists reported using a simple process to stabilize one unruly binary chloride molecule — manganese trichloride (MnCl3). The method involves fixing a stabilizing agent to MnCl3 that prevents it from indiscriminately shedding chlorine atoms, as it would normally do.

“We’ve discovered a convenient, new way to manipulate chlorine and manganese, which are two important elements in organic chemistry,” says Lacy, associate professor of chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “Everything can be done open air with commercially available materials at room temperature, and it takes only a few hours. It’s a one-step process. You mix four safe, inexpensive compounds together in one reaction, and the product just precipitates.”

Midnight blue powder, MnCl3(OPPh3)2, on a white cloth.

This midnight blue powder, MnCl3(OPPh3)2, provides scientists with a readily available source of manganese trichloride. This image is a composite that employs a technique called focus-stacking to show details more clearly. Photo: Douglas Levere

The stable molecule containing manganese trichloride could be employed to help synthesize industrial compounds such as pharmaceutical precursors, artificial enzymes and chemicals involved in biological processes like photosynthesis, according to Lacy, the study’s senior author, and Ananya Saju, the first author and a UB PhD student in chemistry.

“The stabilizing agent is easy to remove and is inexpensive,” Lacy says. “This discovery opens the floodgates to a whole new area of research.”

Ananya Saju and David Lacy.

Ananya Saju (left), first author of the new study and a UB PhD student in chemistry, with David Lacy, senior author and UB associate professor of chemistry. Photo: Douglas Levere

Serendipitous ‘re-discovery’ of useful compound

The stable compound containing manganese trichloride has the chemical formula MnCl3(OPPh3)2. The UB team discovered a way to create this molecule expediently while studying various stabilizing agents for a project funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant Lacy received.

“We were screening a number of stabilizing agents, and in one of those reactions, there was one blue complex that popped up and seemed to be very stable,” Saju says.

That bench-stable complex was MnCl3(OPPh3)2, the subject of the new JACS article.

Soon after Saju created this molecule in the lab, study co-author Justin R. Griffiths, then a postdoctoral researcher in UB’s chemistry department, came across a paper from 1976 where scientists reported creating MnCl3(OPPh3)2, among other compounds. But the method researchers used to prepare the complex in the 1970s was cumbersome, requiring temperatures well below freezing.

“We did not discover the molecule,” Lacy says, “but we serendipitously rediscovered it” while using a much easier process to produce the compound. The team also demonstrated the utility of the complex in chemical synthesis, using MnCl3(OPPh3)2 to add chlorine atoms to alkenes, something the 1976 research did not explore.

UB’s Technology Transfer team has filed a provisional patent application that covers the Lacy lab’s method for preparing MnCl3(OPPh3)2 and its uses. Commercial partners interested in learning more about the research and licensing opportunities can contact the UB Technology Transfer team at

Samantha MacMillan, director of the Cornell University Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology’s X-ray Diffraction Facility, is also a co-author of the JACS article.