blog  •  Jan 11

Sodium Borohydride Series: Beyond Organic Synthesis

Blog #1: Introduction to the Versatility of Sodium Borohydride

Sodium borohydride, designated as NaBH₄, is a vital reducing agent widely recognized for its role in the world of organic chemistry. Its conventional use is associated with the reduction of carbonyl groups in organic molecules, leading to the creation of a broad spectrum of compounds such as alcohols and amines. Yet, the utility of sodium borohydride reaches far beyond the bounds of chemical synthesis. Its multi-faceted applications extend into industries like pharmaceuticals, wastewater treatment, paper production, textile manufacturing, and brewing.

As a well-established reagent in the pharmaceutical industry, sodium borohydride is used in the synthesis of many widely used drugs[1], such as Atorvastatin (Lipitor), Levodopa (Sinemet), Celecoxib (Celebrex) and Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban). Of particular significance, borohydride reductions are critical to the creation of antiviral drugs, particularly those used to treat HIV, and recently Paxlovid for the treatment of COVID[2].

Borohydrides aren’t only used in organic synthesis, there are many uses that make the products we use every day better.

The bright white boxes that we find our new electronics packaged in, or the letter paper we mail is often produced through reductive bleaching in the paper manufacturing industry[3][4]. The presence of lignin, a complex organic polymer in wood, disrupts the formation of smooth, uniformly colored paper. Sodium borohydride aids in the removal of this tenacious substance, thereby improving the color, texture, and overall strength of the final paper product. In recycled paper, borohydride acts as a de-inking reagent, bringing the paper back it’s bright white appearance.

The textile industry similarly benefits from sodium borohydride. Much like its role in paper manufacturing, it serves as a bleaching agent in textile production. The result is brilliantly colored, soft, and durable fabric. Additionally, sodium borohydride's ability to reduce dye intermediates adds another feather to its cap, allowing for a broader spectrum of colors in textile dyeing.

Next, in the domain of wastewater treatment, an increasingly crucial aspect of environmental preservation, sodium borohydride finds an important niche. Industrial wastewater often contains hazardous heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. Sodium borohydride serves as an efficient reducing agent, transforming these toxic metals into less harmful forms which can then be removed safely. In this role, sodium borohydride is instrumental in mitigating environmental pollution and conserving water resources, playing a vital role in our collective effort towards environmental sustainability.

Lastly, in the brewing industry, sodium borohydride takes on the unique responsibility of stabilizing light-sensitive hops.[5] Exposure to light can degrade the flavor of beer, a phenomenon known as 'lightstruck.' Sodium borohydride alters hops extract to prevent this degradation, ensuring the beer's taste remains as the brewer intended and extending its shelf life, and avoiding the ‘skunky’ smell.

To sum up, while sodium borohydride's chemical synthesis role is well known, it has a multitude of other applications that touch various aspects of our daily lives. Whether it's in producing life-saving medications, treating wastewater, refining the paper and textile industries, or enhancing the taste of our favorite brews, sodium borohydride's far-reaching influence is truly remarkable.

[1] Burkhardt, E; Matos, K.; Boron Reagents in Process Chemistry:  Excellent Tools for Selective Reductions; Chem. Rev. 2006, 106, 7, 2617–2650.

[2] Chandra Shekhar, Rajesh Nasam, Siva Ramakrishna Paipuri, Prakash Kumar, Kiranmai Nayani, Srihari Pabbaraja,Prathama S. Mainkar, Srivari Chandrasekhar;Total synthesis of antiviral drug, nirmatrelvir (PF-07321332); Tetrahedron Chem, 4, 2022, 100033

[3] Margaret Hey (1977) PAPER BLEACHING: ITS SIMPLE CHEMISTRY AND WORKING PROCEDURES, The Paper Conservator, 2:1, 10-23, DOI: 10.1080/03094227.1977.9638494


[5] Patrick L. Ting & David S. Ryder (2017) The Bitter, Twisted Truth of the Hop: 50 Years of Hop Chemistry, Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, 75:3, 161-180, DOI: 10.1094/ASBCJ-2017-3638-01

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