The pervasive penetration of heterocyclic chemistry research


Professor Colin Suckling discusses heterocyclic chemistry research and how it makes a difference.

Because I work on chemical biology and medicinal chemistry, most of the Special Reports that I have written deal with science on the interface of chemistry and biology. But in offering perspectives bedded in the field of heterocyclic chemistry, it would be remiss of me not to mention other ways in which heterocyclic chemistry makes a difference and makes new things possible. I was reminded of this when I recently received a paper for a journal to review that described the properties of heterocyclic compounds in a sophisticated class of polymers, known as conjugated microporous polymers. For chemists, there’s a good review article to be found in Chemical Society Reviews (2013, DOI: 10.1039/c3cs60160a). In the past it was a reasonable criticism of much heterocyclic chemistry that compounds could do things fine in the lab but weren’t up to real life applications. This is changing rapidly with the advent of increasingly controlled synthesis of both active compounds and polymeric supports.

In conjugated microporous polymers, heterocyclic compounds can be either structure determining units or functional units, giving the polymers particular value in potentially large scale applications with obvious potential environmental impact such as gas absorption and storage, especially hydrogen, carbon dioxide capture, toxic metal absorption, and heterogeneous catalysis using expensive metals. Equally significant are studies of polymers that can act as light emitters, light harvesters, and electrical energy storage and power supply. Outside the field of medicine it’s hard to think of a group of compounds that have the potential to change the way we do things in so many ways. One of the limitations of many smart pieces of small molecule chemistry in some of these fields is simply the physical problem of holding the right molecules together in the right position with respect to each other to have them do what you want them to do. Conjugated microporous polymers seem to provide a solution.

This field overlaps with the specialism of my colleague at the University of Strathclyde, Professor Peter Skabara ( He is an expert in molecular electronics and told me about his work:

“…There are many exciting emerging applications, such as printable solar cells, ultra-low power lighting, plastic lasers the size of postage stamps and LiFi – a fascinating alternative to WiFi technology that works on room lighting instead of radio waves! Already on the market are Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Sony OLED display products in TVs and smartphones, and there are numerous spin-out companies working on products such as explosives sensors, topical cancer treatment and printable batteries. The future of plastic electronics has huge potential benefits –experts have predicted that organic light emitting diodes alone will represent a $12 billion industry by 2020.”

“…The most exciting type of material being made in my group is the so-called ‘star-shaped’ family of conjugated compounds. These materials are a challenge to make, but they can be prepared in gram quantities. They are monodisperse macromolecules that combine the desirable attributes of molecular based systems and polymers, such as high purity, sharp electronic characteristics, thermal stability, excellent film-forming properties and high degrees of solubility. They have been applied as light emitters in plastic lasers with some record-breaking achievements, in devices for LiFi technology and in solar cells.”

heterocyclic chemistry research
One of Peter Skabara’s star-shaped luminescent solar concentrators emitting light from the edges that it has captured from illumination on the surface (J. Mater. Chem. C, 2017, 5, 1952; DOI: 10.1039/c6tc05298c)

This field is another strong example of the power of chemistry to create compounds of use throughout the modern world. Academic science is more closely coupled with the applications of discoveries than ever before and heterocyclic chemistry is one of the most important agents of that coupling.