THE FASCINATING WORLD OF NANOPUTIAN MOLECULES BY DR ANTHONY MELVIN CRASTO
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nanoputians
NANOPUTIANS…..AMAZING ORGANIC CHEMISTRY
DR ANTHONY MELVIN CRASTO
618904-86-2 cas no
NanoPutians are a series of organic molecules whose structural formulae resemble human forms. James
Tour et al. (Rice University) designed and synthesized these compounds in 2003 as a part of a sequence
of chemical education for young students. The compounds consist of two benzene rings connected via a few
carbon atoms as the body, four acetylene units each carrying an alkyl group at their ends which represents the
hands and legs, and a 1,3-dioxolane ring as the head. Tour and his team at Rice University used the
NanoPutians in their NanoKids educational outreach program. The goal of this program was to educate
children in the sciences in an effective and enjoyable manner. They have made several videos featuring the
NanoPutians as anthropomorphic animated characters.
Construction of the structures depends on Sonogashira coupling and other synthetic techniques. By replacing
the 1,3-dioxolane group with an appropriate ring structure, various other types of putians have been
synthesized, e.g. NanoAthlete, NanoPilgrim, and NanoGreenBeret. Placing thiol functional groups at the leg
enables them to "stand" on a gold surface.
"NanoPutian" is a portmanteau of nanometer, a unit of length commonly used to measure chemical
compounds, and lilliputian, a fictional population of humans in the novel Gulliver's Travels.
NanoKids Educational Outreach Program]
While there are no chemical uses for the NanoKid or any of its subsidiaries, James Tour has turned the
NanoKid into a lifelike character to educate children in the sciences. The goals of the outreach program, as
described on the NanoKids website, are:
“To significantly increase students’ comprehension of chemistry, physics, biology, and materials
science at the molecular level."
"To provide teachers with conceptual tools to teach nanoscale science and emerging molecular
"To demonstrate that art and science can combine to facilitate learning for students with diverse
learning styles and interests."
"To generate informed interest in nanotechnology that encourages participation in and funding for
research in the field.”
To accomplish these goals, several video clips, CDs, as well as interactive computer programs were created.
Tour and his team invested over $250,000 into their project. In order to raise the funds for this endeavor, Tour
used unrestricted funds from his professorship and small grants from Rice University, the Welch Foundation,
the nanotech firm Zyvex, and Texas A&M University. Tour also received $100,000 in 2002 from the Small
Grants for Exploratory Research program, a division of the National Science Foundation.
The main characters in the videos are animated versions of the NanoKid. They star in several videos and
explain various scientific concepts, such as the periodic table, DNA, and covalent bonding.
Rice conducted several studies into the effectiveness of using the NanoKids materials. These studies found
mostly positive results for the use of the NanoKids in the classroom. A 2004-2005 study in two schools districts
in Ohio and Kentucky found that using NanoKids led to a 10-59% increase in understanding of the material
presented. Additionally, it was found that 82% of students found that NanoKids made learning science more
Synthesis of NanoKid
Upperbody of NanoKid
To create the first NanoPutian, dubbed the NanoKid, 1,4-dibromobenzene was iodinated in sulfuric acid. To this
product, “arms”, or 3,3-Dimethylbutyne, were then added through Sonogashira coupling. Formylation of this
structure was then achieved through using the organolithium reagent n-butyllithium followed by quenching
with N,N-dimethylformamide (DMF) to create the aldehyde. 1,2-Ethanediol was added to this structure to
protect the aldehyde using p-toluenesulfonic acid as a catalyst. Originally, Chanteau and Tour aimed to couple
this structure with alkynes, but this resulted in very low yields of the desired products. To remedy this,
the bromide was replaced withiodide through lithium-halogen exchange and quenching by using 1,2diiodoethane. This created the final structure of the upper body for the NanoKid.
Lowerbody of NanoKid
The synthesis of NanoPutian’s lower body begins with nitroaniline as a starting material. Addition of
Br2 in acetic acid places two equivalents of bromine on the benzene ring. NH2 is an electron donating group,
and NO2 is an electron withdrawing group, which both direct bromination to the meta position relative to the
NO2 substituent. Addition of [[NaNO2]], [[H2SO4]], and EtOH removes the NH2¬ substituent. The Lewis
acid SnCl2, a reducing agent in THF/EtOH solvent, replaces NO2 with NH2, which is subsequently replaced by
iodine upon the addition of NaNO2, H2SO4, and KI to yield 3,5-dibromoiodobenzene. In this step,
the Sandmeyer reaction converts the primary amino group (NH2) to a diazonium leaving group (N2), which is
subsequently replaced by iodine. Iodine serves as an excellent coupling partner for the attachment of the
stomach, which is executed through Sonogashira coupling with trimethylsilylacetylene to yield 3,5dibromo(trimethylsilylethynyl)benzene. Attachment of the legs replaces the Br substituents with 1-pentyne
through another Sonogashira coupling to produce 3,5-(1′-Pentynyl)-1-(trimethylsilylethynyl) benzene. To
complete the synthesis of the lower body, the TMS protecting group is removed by selective deprotection
through the addition of K2CO3, MeOH, and CH2Cl2 to yield 3,5-(1′-Pentynyl)-1-ethynylbenzene.
Attachment of Upperbody to Lowerbody of NanoKid
To attach the upper body of the NanoKid to the lower body, the two components were added to a solution
of bis(triphenylphosphine)palladium(II) dichloride, copper(I) iodide,TEA, and THF. This resulted in the final
structure of the NanoKid.
Derivatives of NanoKid
Synthesis of NanoProfessionals
The series of NanoProfessionals were created using the NanoKid as the starting material. This was done by
adding an excess amount of a 1,2- or 1,3- diol to the NanoKid in the presence of a catalytic amount of ptoluenesulfonic acid and microwave oven-irradiation. The use of microwave irradiation reduced the reaction
times. These reactions resulted in an acetal exchange, which changed the structure of the head of the NanoKid
to create the different head structures of the NanoProfessionals, which include: NanoAthlete, NanoPilgrim,
NanoGreenBeret, NanoJester, NanoMonarch, NanoTexan, NanoScholar, NanoBaker, and NanoChef. By
creating a series of different figures, the ultimate product was a recognizably diverse population of
Although the majority of the figures are depicted in their equilibrium conformations, some of the NanoPutians
include nonequilibrium conformations in order to make them more recognizable to nonchemists. Many liberties
were taken in the visual depiction of the head dressings of the NanoPutians.
The entire population of NanoPutians (with the exception of the NanoChef) were generated in one microwave
oven reaction and confirmed by mass spectrometry and 1HNMR.
Below is a table listing the diols needed to convert the NanoKid into various NanoProfessionals. The diols used
to create NanoPilgrim and NanoTexan were made through reductive pinacol coupling of the 1,4- and 1,5diketones with SmI2 and Mg/TiCl4. To create the diols used to make the NanoMonarch and the NanoScholar,
catalytic OsO4 was used to dihydroxylate the respective cycloalkenes. The diastereomeric ratios were
determined through 1H NMR using the diastereotopic acetal protons.
Synthesis of the NanoKid in Upright Form]
Stick Figure NanoPutian in its Energy Minimized Conformation. Determined Using Spartan.
3-Butyn-1-ol was reacted with methanesulfonyl chloride and triethanolamine to produce its mesylate. The
mesylate was displaced to make thiolacetate. The thiol was coupled with 3,5-
dibromo(trimethylsilylethynyl)benzene to create a free alkyne. The resulting product, 3,5-(4’-thiolacetyl-1’butynyl)-1-(trimethylsilylethynyl)-benzene, had its trimethylsilyl group removed using tetra-n-butylammonium
fluoride (TBAF) and AcOH/Ac2O in THF. The free alkyne was then coupled with the upper body product from
the earlier synthesis. This resulted in a NanoKid with protected thiol feet.
To make the NanoKid “stand’, the acetyl protecting groups were removed through the use of ammonium
hydroxide in THF to create the free thiols. A gold-plated substrate was then dipped into the solution and
incubated for four days. Ellipsometry was used to determine the resulting thickness of the compound, and it
was determined that the NanoKid was upright on the substrate.
Synthesis of NanoPutian Chain
Synthesis of the upper part of the NanoPutian chain begins with 1,3-dibromo-2,4-diiodobenzene as the starting
material. Sonogashira coupling with 4-oxytrimethylsilylbut-1-yne produces 2,5-bis(4-tert-butyldimethylsiloxy-1′butynyl)-1,4-di-bromobenzene. One of the bromine substituents is converted to an aldehyde through an SN2
reaction with the strong base, n-BuLi, and THF in the aprotic polar solvent, DMF to produce 2,5-bis(4-tertbutyldimethylsiloxy-1′-butynyl)-4-bromobenzaldehyde. Another Sonogashira coupling with 3,5-(1′-Pentynyl)-1ethynylbenzene attaches the lower body of the NanoPutian. The conversion of the aldehyde group to a diether
“head” occurs in two steps. The first step involves addition of ethylene glycol and trimethylsilyl chloride (TMSCl)
in CH2Cl2 solvent. Addition of TBAF in THF solvent removes the silyl protecting group.
In 2003, there was a paper published which looked like it was going to be a good
candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize. It was “Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules:
The NanoPutians” by Professor James Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice University’s
Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. The word “NanoPutian” is a
portmanteau of “nano”, which means a billionth and the “Lilliputian” from the novel
The Tour group designed and synthesized a number of human-shaped organic
molecules in this paper. Shown in Figure 1 is a molecule named NanoKid, which was
chosen by the group as a basic skeleton. The 3-D model looks like the figure on the
right and the structural formula used by chemists is shown on the left. The structural
formula might look more human, since the oxygen atoms look kind of like the eyes.
Fig 1 NanoKid
The functional group used for the head part of NanoKid is called acetal. This group is
easily exchangeable to make NanoPutians of various occupations (Figure 2). Let’s not
be too picky about the bond angles of NanoMonarch and NanoTexan.
Fig 2 various NanoPutians
Unfortunately, NanoBalletDancer seems to be the only one having a different posture
(Figure 3). Personally, I would be interested in making NanoPitcher or
Fig 3 NanoBalletDancer
The Tour Group also synthesized NanoPutians standing on gold surface with thiol
functional groups on their feet, a NanoPutian couple dancing (Figure 4), and even a
polymer of NanoPutians (Figure 5).
Fig 4 NanoPutian Couple
Fog 5 NanoPutian polymer
NanoPutians aren’t actually the first example of human-shaped molecule. For
example, the molecule shown in Figure 6 has appeared as a joke in a journal published
on April Fool’s Day. The molecule shown in Figure 7 has been introduced once as
Buddha molecule. Nevertheless, NanoPutians were probably the first case where
human-shaped molecules were synthesized systematically(?) to be published as a full
Fig 6 human-shaped molecule Fig 7 molecular Buddha
The Role of NanoPutians
Besides being human-shaped, the NanoPutian molecules have neither notable
properties nor potential usefulness for future. The synthesis is also too straightforward
to make any significant methodological contribution to chemical science.
Then how did this research get funded and get to be published on Journal of Organic
Chemistry? It turns out that the synthesis was a part of the chemistry education
program at Rice University aimed at introducing nanotechnology to young students. In
fact, it has also been on the cover page of Journal of Chemical Education too. It’s funny
though, to imagine the faces of the journal editors when they first read the paper.
But come to think of it, molecules like dodecahedrane and kekulene might not be so
different in terms of not having much to appeal other than their structural beauty.
Even “total synthesis of biologically active natural products”, the most respected
subfield of organic chemistry, has been criticized on its meaning recently. In a way,
the NanoPutian research seems to me as a voice saying “synthetic targets should be
selected more freely” and almost as an antithesis against the state of organic chemistry
Anyway, this paper was introduced by general media and was also one of the topics
that received most feedbacks on my homepage. There were those who dismissed it as
a meaningless play by chemists, but in terms of directing public interest toward
organic chemistry wasn’t it a hundred times more effective than ordinary researches? I
think it was an excellent work for the education of young chemists as well.
Professor Tour’s playful sense of molecular design can be seen in his research of
NanoCars too, which I will introduce in a separate column. This is a wonderful work
which can impress both serious scientists and general public.
Chanteau, S. H.; Tour, J. M. (2003). "Synthesis of
Anthropomorphic Molecules: The NanoPutians". The Journal of
Organic Chemistry 68 (23): 8750–
8766.doi:10.1021/jo0349227. PMID 14604341.
chanteau, S. H.; Ruths, T.; Tour, J. M. (2003). "Arts and
Sciences Reunite in Nanoput: Communicating Synthesis and the
Nanoscale to the Layperson". Journal of Chemical
Education 80 (4): 395. doi:10.1021/ed080p395. edit
C&EN: EDUCATION - ‘NANOKIDS’ TRY TO GET INTO
MIDDLE SCHOOL.” Accessed May 10,
“NanoKids - Mission.” Accessed May 6,
“Welcome to Nanokids.” Accessed May
DR ANTHONY MELVIN CRASTO Ph.D
GLENMARK SCIENTIST , INDIA
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